Louisville looked gorgeous to Clemson from a distance. Yet, as they approached one another, the beauty began to fade. Now that the Tigers stand face to face with them, the Cardinals appear to be missing some teeth.
Louisville will be no less talented Thursday night than it was three weeks ago. Its environment will be no less daunting. The condensed preparation week will be no less challenging.
But the matchup is a lot less attractive.
Louisville was projected to threaten Clemson and Florida State for the Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division throne. Louisville opened the season with what appeared to be a respectable loss to Auburn, who was ranked No. 7 in the preseason USA Today coaches poll. Yet, in the following week, Louisville dropped its home opener to Houston, a member of the American Athletic Conference.
“I wouldn’t look too much into that. This is a good football team,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of Louisville. “They’re a lot like us. They’re still trying to figure out who they are.”
Yet, conventional perception assumes it already knows who the Cardinals are, and more significantly, who they are not.
Perception assumes Louisville is not the ACC contender it was projected to be. Perception assumes Louisville’s defense is not as solid as it was last season. Perception assumes that Louisville’s winless record cheapens the victory Clemson could earn there and weakens the strength of Clemson’s schedule.
The problem for Clemson is that its path to the College Football Playoff is paved by perception. Thus, Clemson cannot afford a single misstep.
Last year, Ohio State dropped its season opener to Virginia Tech at home. Although Virginia Tech finished with a meager 7-6 record, the loss occurred early enough for Ohio State to recover. Ohio State rolled through the Big Ten conference, claimed one of the four playoff spots and cruised to the national championship.
Perception does not allow Clemson that flexibility.
Before Louisville’s dud against Houston, Clemson could have dropped this game but potentially pulled back into playoff contention by sweeping through the remainder of its schedule. That includes dates with Notre Dame, Florida State, Georgia Tech and South Carolina.
Now, considering the already unfavorable perception of the ACC, Clemson will need a perfect record and assistance from his competitors to attract a playoff spot.
To maintain the perceived strength of its schedule, Clemson needs Notre Dame to compensate for the season-ending injury of starting quarterback Malik Zaire. Clemson needs Georgia Tech to remain a force in the ACC Coastal. Clemson needs South Carolina to pull itself off the floor of the SEC. Clemson needs Louisville to rebound from its rocky start— at least after Thursday night.
Perception is the fallacy of college football’s ranking system. The polls are subjective. They are arbitrary. They are random. They are susceptible to the whims of voters who approach each week’s ballot with their own methodology and their own biases.
That was evidenced last week when 10 of the SEC’s 14 teams were ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. Voters agreed that 71 percent of one league was ranked among the top 20 percent in college football. That appraisal was swiftly dismissed when No. 6 Auburn was nearly knocked off by Jacksonville State, an emerging power— in the championship subdivision— and when No. 18 Arkansas lost to Toledo.
Reaction to these losses did not severely damage the SEC’s propagandized perception. Auburn’s scare vaulted Jacksonville State to the No. 1 ranking in the FCS. Auburn merely dropped to No. 15 in the coaches poll, ahead of Georgia Tech, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Now, merely seven SEC teams are ranked in the poll. The ACC is not given that same benefit of the doubt.
Through the first two weeks, ACC teams compiled an 0-5 record in games against teams from other Power 5 conferences— the SEC, the Big 12, the Big Ten and the Pacific 12. That validates the perception that outside of Clemson, Florida State and maybe Georgia Tech, the ACC has no viable contenders and does not deserve consideration for the playoff. Perception assumes that a one-loss Clemson team would need a collection of Hollywood lawyers to make its case for a spot over Oregon, Alabama, Ohio State or TCU.
Rankings are based on past performance, present hunches and future guesses. Although we know how unreliable they are, they still are the barometer by which all teams are evaluated. Clemson cannot change the ACC’s perception on its own, and there is only one way to overcome it.
Win ’em all.
There are no forgivable losses on Clemson’s schedule. Its sole focus this week should be defeating Louisville, not disputing the misguided assessments of Louisville’s record. It sole focus each subsequent week should be winning, not debunking misconceptions about its league.
Perception may deem these wins unattractive now, but Clemson must continue to walk this path to the playoff perfectly, or it will quickly become the path to the Peach Bowl.