It’s safe to say that this year hasn’t gone the way Florida State ― Clemson’s opponent on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) ― would have liked.
Florida State was ranked No. 3 in the AP preseason Top 25, but dreams of a national title were dashed in the season opener, and not because the Seminoles lost to Alabama. When quarterback Deondre Francois sustained a torn patellar tendon in his left leg and was ruled out for the season, Florida State was forced to figure out a way to replace him on the fly. Even though James Blackman has performed admirably, the Seminoles (3-5, 3-4 ACC) are staring a losing season in the face.
On the other hand, Clemson (8-1, 6-1) is riding a season on nearly the opposite side of the spectrum. Quarterback Kelly Bryant has been banged up, but he’s playing well as the Tigers hit the home stretch.
As the No. 4 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, Clemson is in an ideal position as it closes out the last month of the regular season. Win out, and Clemson almost assuredly will be in, barring something bizarre occurring that would be outside the Tigers’ control. That’s why the game Saturday is so critical. If you think of the remainder of the year as a playoff bracket, Clemson is facing Florida State in what is essentially the Sweet 16.
Win, and the Tigers advance to the ACC Championship, which would serve as the quarterfinals. Win there, and the semifinals await.
As I described after the playoff rankings were announced Tuesday, games involving Auburn potentially could throw the top 4 for a loop, as could the Big 12 race, depending on how things shake out. Clemson’s spoken a lot about shifting to the “championship” phase and when the Florida State game holds win-or-go-home stakes, it’s now or never.
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) November 10, 2017
Win, and Clemson is able to overcome the hiccup that was its loss to Syracuse and claim the ACC Atlantic, ensuring a spot in the ACC title game. Lose, and the Tigers almost certainly would suffer a precipitous drop in the rankings and likely would not have enough time to climb back up into the top 4.
Cornerback Marcus Edmond returns this week for the first time since he sustained a foot injury against Auburn in the second game of the season, so the secondary is getting healthier. Dexter Lawrence and Kendall Joseph are questionable, so the defense still isn’t full strength. But Clemson coaches must feel good about where the team stands, and this week should prove it.
“We’ve got an opportunity to do a lot, but … the rest of our season really hinges on these next four quarters,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “This is championship football for us.”
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