Think of the year’s work for a given sports team as a big cake that’s made up mostly of rich icing.
What counts most is the postseason, that’s the tastiest stuff. The little bit of fluffy batter inside this dessert is the regular season.
Not that there was much wrong with Clemson’s 2018 build-up to December and January.
The Tigers went 15-0 — most wins by any major college team in the modern era. They finished first nationally in scoring defense, fourth in scoring offense.
But if true legacy is how you finish — and it should be — it’s the remarkable postseason run that makes Clemson’s 2018-2019 season the best in college history.
Clemson finished celebrating atop a podium in California, with defensive linemen Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell combining to give head coach Dabo Swinney a wet willie in each ear as he thanked God and Tiger fans.
“Joy,” the official team word for the 2018 season Swinney picked last spring after much prayer, was on display.
“Joy,” Swinney said. “And don’t let anyone steal it.”
It’s not just hard to top Clemson’s 44-16 College Football Playoff National Championship Game upset of No. 1 Alabama that followed a 30-3 rout of No. 3 Notre Dame after a 42-10 ACC Championship Game win over Pittsburgh.
It’s not close.
That was one of Nick Saban’s best teams on the field in Santa Clara. The great Saban, owner of six national titles total, five with the Crimson Tide.
He hadn’t lost by more than 14 points at Alabama before Clemson went 10 of 15 on third down while Trevor Lawrence was firing line drives to Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins.
Notre Dame came to Dallas undefeated, which means Clemson in two playoff games beat teams with a combined 26-0 record. The Fighting Irish managed just 248 yards.
Running back Travis Etienne almost outgained Pittsburgh in Clemson’s ACC Championship Game victory: 156 yards rushing to 199 total.
That’s a 74-19 scoring edge in playoff games for Clemson over teams ranked No. 1 and No. 3, and 116-29 in three postseason games.
Keep in mind that until the College Football Playoff era made its debut five years ago, teams didn’t have to win two postseason games to claim a championship.
The conference championship game concept, another postseason hurdle, wasn’t around until the SEC’s 1992 debut.
But here are seven other contenders from the last 50 years for Best College Football Season Ever (in chronological order):
Case for: 13-0 topped by a 38-6 win over Bear Bryant’s undefeated Alabama in the Orange Bowl; averaged 39 points per game and allowed 8.2; led by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers and middle guard Rich Glover.
Case against: Clemson had to win two playoff games and its 44.3/13.1 points per game ratio isn’t bad, either. Though Alabama was 11-0 and dominated the SEC, the Tide’s first great black player, Wilbur Jackson, scored only one touchdown in 1971.
Southern California 1972
Case for: 12-0 with a 42-17 victory over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl; beat everyone by double-digits except Stanford (30-21); Anthony Davis and Sam “Bam” Cunningham in John McKay’s backfield were ridiculous.
Case against: Ohio State was 9-1 before the Rose Bowl; too bad the Trojans didn’t get to play No. 2 Oklahoma.
Case for: A 62-24 clobbering of Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators in the Fiesta Bowl capped a 12-0 season in which Tom Osborne’s team dominated four top-10 teams (closest score was 44-21 at No. 7 Colorado).
Case against: What a joke that star running back Lawrence Phillips was allowed to play that season after a series of legal incidents including abuse of women.
Case for: 12-0 with a 37-14 win over No. 4 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl; won games by an average of 34 points.
Case against: Played only one top-10 team, Nebraska, all season. Clemson played two top-three teams within a few playoff weeks.
Case for: Who can forget Vince Young’s game-winning touchdown run against Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl? A 13-0 record with wins over four ranked teams, including the No. 1 Trojans (41-38).
Case against: Postseason margin of victory as compared to Clemson.
Case for: Long before he was engaged, Tim Tebow led the Gators to a 13-1 season after his “Promise” speech following a Sept. 27 loss to Ole Miss.
Case against: Florida beat No. 2 Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami but not in dominant fashion (24-14).
Case for: What a defense; the Tide gained revenge for a regular-season loss and blanked No. 1 LSU, 21-0, in the BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans; held 12 foes to 14 points or less.
Case against: Clemson was more impressive with a harder road in the postseason.
Clemson’s obvious weakness in any best-ever argument?
Strength of schedule. The Tigers were a respectable but not tremendous No. 25 in the final Sagarin computer ranking.
But that’s a statistic best used when a team with an inflated record loses a big game.
It’s somewhere between diluted and irrelevant when a team treats a very long postseason like a video game.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff