Deshaun Watson’s rise at Clemson catapulted the Tigers to the top of college football. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One could easily conclude that, as with the UEFA Champions League, the introduction of the College Football Playoffs has reinforced the type of sport already defined by the Haves-Neighbors divisions.

Of the 28 PSC applications sent in seven years, 20 went to four schools: Alabama (six), Clemson (six), Oklahoma (four) and Ohio State (four). In die tijd hebben ze 22 conferentietitels gewonnen en zelfs andere goedlopende programma’s verslagen – St. Louis, St. Louis, St. Dit is de eerste keer dat de Universiteit van St. George en Notre Dame, kortom, de LSU wereldwijd vertegenwoordigd zijn.

MS+’s top four predictions for 2021? Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State. They could also be a top four team in the preseason AP poll. If not, it’s because Georgia is ahead of one of them, but that doesn’t bode well for parity. The Dawgs finished in the CFP Finals (in the 2017 season), compiled perhaps the highest recruiting percentage outside of Tuscaloosa and finished in the AP Top 10 four years in a row. No, no, no, no, no. It’s okay.

It’s not quite like the 1970s, when nine schools held 69 of the 80 spots in the AP polls at the end of the year, but it’s not far off. And it’s easy to forget that one of the names on the current list of dominant forces is a newcomer.

At the end of 2014, Dabo Swinney Clemson’s program was considered one of the few programs on the rise. The Tigers have won by double digits for four consecutive seasons, and in 2013 achieved a top-10 finish for the first time in 23 years. They contracted Deshaun Watson, a top-level quarterback who looked good when he had the chance, but tore his ACL in late 2014. AP voters started off cautiously with the 2015 Tigers at No. 12, two spots behind three-time defending ACC champion Florida State.

Of course, they caught fire in 2015, reaching the national title game and winning the following season. They’ve won and lost 79-7 in the last six years, ranked first in the AP poll at least once each year and were ranked by the PSC six times in a row. Watson was the first of many five-star quarterbacks contracted by Swinney, who invested heavily in his staff of assistants, improved the program’s overall recruiting (Clemson averaged 8.0 ESPN 300 subscribers from 2011-2014 and 14.3 from 2018-2021) and slowly built a purple and orange ACC Death Star. From 1989 to 2014, the Tigers won two championships; they have now won six in a row.

Although the sport is dominated by the same schools that have always been members of the oligarchy – Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma were also on the list of bluebloods from the 1970s – Clemson has followed a script that technically anyone with money from the conference, an invested fan base and good old-fashioned dedication can follow: make good recruits, support those recruits, win a little, recruit better and better, win more and more.

Just because almost no one does it doesn’t mean no one can. And eventually, someone else will.

Who can it be?

To begin to answer that question, we must first step back and return to the topic I discussed in October, when one of New Clemson’s few potentials began the season. Sure, this article proved my unlimited power to jinx things – Penn State, the subject of this article, started the 2020 season with five defeats – but in this article, I explained what I hoped would be an interesting new take on the sport.

The idea is very simple: Apply the scores to just about anything that happens in a football game. Any time your offense makes a successful play (50% of required yardage on first down, 70% on second down, or 100% on third or fourth down) or your defense gets in the way, it’s a win. Each win is worth 0.3 points, and bonus points are awarded in key situations (walks on third or fourth down, red zone – high average situations), either for key plays or for winning chances. Special commands also have a point value.

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The result of this approach is that for most teams you get an estimate of the advantage that is close to the actual advantage, and you have a clear idea of how the team got there – through particular success in the big games department, or simply by winning many more games than their opponents, etc.

I was excited about this idea for a while because it puts things in terms of coaching. While my SP+ grades are predictive and forward-looking, this grade is more descriptive and prescriptive; it assigns value to aspects of the game that coaches have long valued, and in the money coaches value one thing above everything else: Points. Instead of explaining what a metric like my margin explosiveness means, or what goes into a particular model of added point expectancy (APE), you could say that Team A scores X points per game due to big play situations and loses X points per game due to turnovers. It can serve as a gateway to dirtier things. (I was also pleased to see that, as mentioned in the October article, with some modifications this approach works well at the college and professional play-by-play level.)

It also gives you the opportunity to see what separates the wheat from the chaff in college football.

Let’s get back to the issues at hand: That sparked the rise of Clemson and can take on the Tigers. Let’s start by comparing four things: the statistical profiles of the average national champion, the average CFP, and Clemson (2012-14) and Clemson (2015-20) before the blowout.

  Margin of appreciation East. Margin Efficiency Keyboard games Explosives revolutions ST
National Championship (2006-20) 24.7 24.7 6.6 10.0 4.4 2.1 2.1
Participants FPS (2014-20) 21.2 20.9 5.1 8.3 4.1 2.0 2.5
Clemson (2012-14) 16.1 16.6 4.4 7.7 2.1 1.6 0.7
Clemson (2015-20) 24.8 22.9 6.2 10.5 4.1 1.6 1.0

While Clemson recruiting has really taken off over the years, the Swinney Tigers have broken through without signing as many Bluebirds as other national powerhouses. They made a few more big play situations and improved their special teams a bit, but the biggest gains were in the area of key play situations. Over the past six seasons, teams have averaged 9.5 points per game just 16 times – Clemson did so five times – and the other 129 FBS teams combined for 11 points.

In 2019, the Tigers won the National Championship Game over Alabama almost entirely on those key plays – they won 19 of 28 third downs (10-for-15, Bama 4-for-13) and four of seven fourth downs, and if you don’t count late-game possessions, they scored 37 points on six possessions, while Alabama scored just 16 points on six possessions. Add a six of spades and you win by 28 while creating as many scoring opportunities as your opponent.

This was a particularly extreme example – even the best third-graders and red zone teams often can’t match this, and applying extra value to a small sample of games in an already small sample of sports can be problematic. Still, situational football exists, and Clemson has long used elite game forms in these situations. These numbers are not random.

Which teams are closest to the club members? To account for both Clemson’s improved performance on the field and his strong recruiting in the period leading up to his breakout year in 2015, we look at 12 programs that have both (a) averaged at least six ESPN 300 grades per season and (b) generated an earnings percentage of at least .600 over the past three years.

  Margin of appreciation East. Margin Efficiency Keyboard games Explosives revolutions ST
Clemson (2012-14) 16.1 16.6 4.4 7.7 2.1 1.6 0.7
Georgia (2018-20) 17.2 16.3 3.5 6.6 4.1 0.4 1.7
Notre Dame (2018-20). 14.7 14.3 2.5 5.3 3.4 2.5 0.6
Florida (2018-20) 14.5 11.9 3.4 4.8 2.1 1.2 0.5
Oregon (2018-20) 10.8 11.2 3.3 4.7 2.0 0.2 0.1
Penn State (2018-20). 12.3 11.1 3.4 5.1 2.2 -0.6 1.0
LSU (2018-20) 10.9 10.3 2.6 3.7 -0.2 2.5 1.8
Texas A&M (2018-20). 9.9 10.1 3.4 4.5 1.3 -0.6 1.5
Auburn (2018-20). 8.5 10.0 2.1 3.4 0.3 1.9 2.3
Washington (2018-20) 9.4 8.9 1.5 2.4 2.8 2.2 0.0
Michigan (2018-20) 7.0 8.4 2.2 2.5 1.3 0.4 2.2
Texas (2018-20) 8.1 7.9 0.5 3.2 1.0 2.4 0.8
USC (2018-20). 4.4 5.1 1.5 2.6 2.1 -0.8 0.3

Because it’s always tricky to use scoring indicators to measure the health of a team when it comes to differences in schedule performance (which is why indicators like SP+ and RPI are so useful), and because all of the 2020 indicators are a bit questionable due to the lack of non-conference games, here’s the average SP+ for these teams over the past three years to add context:

With all that data in mind, here are five programs I think have the best chance of becoming the new Clemson, a team we’ll look back on in a few years as a program that broke through in 2021 (or maybe 2022) and dropped a series of CFP bids on an unsuspecting universe.

Should this one count? As J.T. Daniels, Mac Jones’ most likely successor for 2021, he’s almost too obvious a choice.

The Kirby Smarts Dawgs won the national title in 2017, their average SP+ rating is higher than OU’s, they have the aforementioned top-10 rankings, and the only team to land more ESPN 300 prospects than UGA in the last three years is Bama. The only thing missing is a sustainable breakthrough at the PSC level.

Then why hasn’t it happened yet? Two things:

Bama is in the same class. And if the Crimson Tide doesn’t get in the way, historically a great LSU (in 2019). Dan Mullen’s Florida was good enough to end the Dawgs’ three-year SEC East title series in 2020 as well. Nick Saban’s success has distracted from the fact that it’s really hard for everyone else to stand out in the SEC.

The attack hasn’t taken place yet. Saban made an attempt at a 2015 offensive upgrade, and LSU followed suit in 2019 with the perfect mix of talent (including Joe Barrow) and new coaching input, but Smart seems to be sticking around a bit longer with his defense, field position and solid playside ideals. Usually it works, but the Dawgs couldn’t keep pace with Bama and Florida’s elite last fall, and even with a late rebound they ranked only 21st in SP+ offense after being 32nd in 2019.

Although it’s not hard to wonder if this is the year. Georgia made an offensive leap in a seemingly sustainable way in late 2020 – Daniels, a former Blue Chipper who had a strong track record before transferring to USC, was finally healthy after battling knee problems for more than a year. With a strong arm and a legion of quality players taking advantage of their opportunities, the Dawgs have been able to stretch the field in ways that coordinator Todd Monken could only dream of when he arrived in Athens.

Monken should be able to realize his vision in 2021; the Dawgs get Daniels, almost every technical player and three offensive linemen back. UGA’s elite defense is expected to replace six of the top eight defenders and rusher Azez Ojulari, but after finishing first in consecutive SP+ seasons, we expect the ceiling to still be very high.

Even assuming Alabama remains Alabama despite trading key pieces, Florida loses top offensive talent, Auburn starts with a new coach, and Texas A&M and LSU are not on the Dawgs’ roster. The All-Stars will probably do what they can for a non-Bama SEC team.

Can Notre Dame find a top QB and go from a playoff team to a championship team? AP Photo/Ron Jenkins

That’s another point that should matter: the Fighting Irish have reached the CFP in two of the last three seasons. But their appearance made it clear that the job was not yet done.

Still, Brian Kelly has contracted more blue-chip talent this year than Swinney did in 2012-14, the Irish were a top-five team for most of 2020 before collapsing late in the year against Clemson and Alabama, and if you think dominating key games is a sustainable approach, of the aforementioned group only Georgia has a points per game average in that category.

Of course, there is no Deshaun Watson, at least as far as we know. Clemson broke through because, among all the other positives, they had a top-level quarterback; Wisconsin let Jack Cone walk, who could potentially play at the level of Ian Book, but Book wasn’t Watson either. Future freshman Tyler Buckner? Newcomer Drew Pine? That may be the only thing missing, but it is a very important part.

Here are the teams that have contracted more ESPN 300 prospects than Oregon in the 2021 class: Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. Mario Cristobal is creating a furor in the recruiting department, but that’s only one of two reasons the Ducks are so highly rated. The other one? They are in the Pac-12, the only conference that is not currently monopolized by one of the four superpowers around which this room is built.

The Pac-12 could have incredible depth in 2021, when most teams return after an extremely short 2020 season. But there is no unbeatable national title contender, and the first program to go from good to potentially elite may pay off in the long run. Washington and USC also have a lot of potential, and I’m intrigued by what Arizona State’s offense might do this fall. The uncertain quarterback situation may hold the Ducks back in the short term, but once Cristobal and offensive coordinator Joe Moorehead get the QB situation in order, they will back the signal-caller on almost every two-point play. I still give the Ducks a long-term edge based on potential and recent recruiting.

Can James Franklin make Penn State a perennial title contender? Associated Press/Gene J. Gottlieb, Jr. Puskar

Last year, I would have put the Nittany Lions right behind Georgia in a list like this. The Nittany Lions finished sixth in SP+ rankings in 2017 and 2019 and averaged more than 10 blue chips per year from 2018-20. Their biggest problem – the one that won’t be solved anytime soon (until college football accepts me with the division mantra) – is the fact that they share a division with Ohio State.

Last year was a clear failure. Of course, despite the bad start and the 4-5 finish, the close games and the failures, they still have the 18th seed. Place in MS+ reached. But add to that a shaky recruiting class and the shaky aura that comes with a record of less than.500, and the Nittany Lions’ stock price has fallen a bit this year.

That’s if you buy the stock, right? James Franklin waived offensive coordinator Mike Jurcic to bolster a solid but less-than-stellar offense, and the defense hasn’t dropped below 14th in defensive SP+ since 2016. His 2021 team will be the most experienced in recent times, and it might be more experienced than you think.

Honestly, any of the teams in the table above could be in the top 5 here, but let’s take a look at the Wild Card, who we’re sure have the breakthrough advantage. LSU finished 2019 with the best football we’ve ever seen, and while nearly everyone who contributed to that breakthrough is gone, we know the Tigers have set the recruiting bar high and have athletes who will thrive as head coach Ed Orgeron engages with his coaching staff.

The table above gives an idea of LSU’s largest graduating class of 2020. How can a team that has boasted the offensive talent of the Tigers, Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, Terrace Marshall Jr, Clyde Edwards-Heller and now Keyshawn Butte in recent years, lose the battle for average explosiveness? That’s how flawed the defense was last year.

In 2020, Orgeron replaced retired defensive coordinator (and current Baylor head coach) Dave Aranda with his old friend Bo Pelini and paid him; it was a regressive hire, and LSU’s defense allowed an explosive play rate (12-yard runs, 16-yard passes) of 16.5% last year, 122nd in FBS. If new DC Daronte Jones can bring some cohesion to the defense and the good players on both sides of the ball are in good shape, a strong rebounding performance is possible.

The Tigers are here for the rough side, but they have something to prove after last year. The national champions aren’t falling apart like the Tigers did last year, even though they’re losing a lot of their scouts, so the path back to elite is not clear.

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