Clemson, FSU both in playoff? It might take ‘a perfect storm’

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney will meet on the field Nov. 11 in Clemson. (File/AP Photo/Phil Sears)

CHARLOTTE — More than any other head-to-head matchup in the country, Clemson-Florida State has consistently been a de facto conference championship game, and a national championship elimination affair.

But is it, though? As the College Football Playoff enters its third year of granting admission to four teams to compete for the crown, the notion of one conference grabbing two playoff berths remains unlikely but possible.

With five Power 5 conferences bidding for four spots — and that’s assuming no mid-major school like Boise State, Marshall, Houston or Memphis goes undefeated and enters the conversation — there seems to be one general equation that would lead to a league hijacking half the playoff bracket’s qualifiers.

“I think it would have to be a perfect storm, that other leagues ended up (having) a three-loss champion,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said at last week’s ACC Football Kickoff.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who emphasized how highly he values a major conference champion having a chance to make the playoff, went a little further in exploring the hypothetical.

“I mean, it would have to be an unusual circumstance across the board for two teams to get in,” Swinney said. “But not out of the realm at all.

“I mean, you might have other conferences where their winner might be 8-4. Is the 8-4 team better than the 11-1 team that only lost to the No. 1 team? I don’t think so. So all things being considered when the committee looks at it, I think being a conference champion is of huge importance and relevance to their decision-making. But this conference champion’s 8-4, 9-3, 8-5, who knows how all that stuff’s going to play out? I have no idea.”

Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich represents the ACC on the College Football Playoff selection committee, and is recused from any discussions in the fall regarding Clemson’s playoff candidacy.

There are only two years of precedent in this system. In 2015, when Clemson went 13-0 and represented the ACC in the playoff, the Pac-12 was the odd league out, since Stanford was the only Power 5 conference champion with two losses.

In 2014, Florida State won the ACC for a third straight year and was the nation’s only undefeated team. Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State — each with one loss — filled out the field, while one-loss Baylor and TCU were squeezed out on account of the Big XII’s lack of a conference title game.

There has not yet been a seismic upset in a conference title game in the College Football Playoff’s brief history, which would thus upset the balance of power in the selection committee’s slotted rankings.

In theory, teams from the same division — like the ACC Atlantic’s Clemson and Florida State, or the SEC West’s Alabama and LSU — could both reach the playoffs only if there was one loss between them. In 2011, unbeaten LSU and 11-1 Alabama met in a rematch in the BCS National Championship Game.

So what if chaos strikes again after two relatively peaceful seasons? Should a conference field two playoff teams?

“Why not? The best teams get in,” Swinney said. “The good news is, they’ve gotta earn it. Who knows what’s going to happen in college football? Everybody might have two losses. There might be two ACC teams, one’s undefeated, one’s got one loss. Could be any other conference, too. It’s not an impossible theory. It could definitely happen.”

The last five FSU-Clemson game results have directly impacted which of those two teams qualified for the ACC Championship Game, and all five of those title games were won by either the Seminoles or Tigers. FSU (2013) and Clemson (2015) have been in two of the last three national championship games.

Clemson visits Florida State on Oct. 29; the Golden Nugget sportsbook in Las Vegas installed the Seminoles as a 3.5-point favorite on July 8. Both teams are expected to begin this season ranked in the top five of preseason polls.