Clemson’s Title Hopes

The Clemson Tigers came oh-so-close to winning the national title last year, going 13-0 through the regular season, beating Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff, before finally losing a back-and-forth barnburner to Alabama, 45-40, in the championship game. Given that, and given the return of do-everything quarterback DeShaun Watson, perhaps it's natural to see Clemson sitting near the top of early rankings and on the futures market. But there's plenty of reason to suggest caution for college football bettors.

Let's begin by asking a big-picture question - who are the programs that seem to return year after year to the national title hunt - or at least string together consecutive seasons that get them in the national top four, the basic requisite in the Playoff era? Alabama is certainly on the list. You could put Urban Meyer and Ohio State there. Is Clemson really at that level?

The record says no. Clemson has put together back-to-back national Top 10 seasons only once in its history, back in 1981-82. As to finishing in the top four for two straight seasons, the next time the Tigers do that will be their first.

Clemson backers may retort that this is a different Tiger program under the leadership of Dabo Swinney and that is undeniably true. Swinney has won 10-plus games each year since 2011, he's gotten into the Orange Bowl three times and won it twice. But a look at the recruiting record doesn't suggest that Swinney has gotten the Tigers to "they don't rebuild, they reload" status just yet.

If we look at the recruiting ranks for the last three years, we see Clemson ranking 15th in 2013, 17th in 2014 and 9th in 2015. Now that's hardly anything to be embarrassed about, but if we're talking about simply reloading after heavy personnel losses, it's not in Nick Saban or Urban Meyer territory.

And reloading is what has to happen on the defensive side of the bal. Clemson loses eight starters on defense. More important than even the quantity of starters lost is the quality. Defensive ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson were each as good as anyone in the country and it gave the Tigers the ability to pressure the quarterback from both sides of the pocket without having to blitz. If they did have to bring extra pass-rushers, cornerback Mackenzie Alexander was one of the best at his position and could cover man-to-man all over the field. All three of these players are gone to the NFL.

Clemson backers may respond further that the offense and Watson carried the team last year and they'll do it again this year. Taking nothing away from Watson's greatness, this isn't the case. The Tigers ranked 16th nationally last year in points scored and the defense wasn't far behind, at 25th in points allowed. That's a reasonably balanced team and underscores how much the Tiger D needs to play at last year's level if this program is to reach a second consecutive Playoff.

DeShaun Watson is a genuinely great player. The numbers dazzle you - he completed 68% of his passes, threw for over 4,100 yards and has 35-13 TD/INT ratio. As if that weren't enough he ran for 1100 more yards. As good as those stats are, watching him in person is even more electric. He passes the eye test, the analytics test and any other test.

But think about Watson is being asked to do - he's asked to do something that's never been done in Clemson football history - finish in the top four for two straight years - and do it with a defense completely rebuilt with underclassmen that are out of recruiting classes considered good, but not great. And if somehow Watson does that - which probably means winning a road game at Florida State--he still has to win two more Playoff games to actually win the national championship.

So what does Las Vegas say the odds are of that happening? 15-2! That's right, Clemson's national championship odds are even with Ohio State and narrowly behind Alabama, the 7-1 favorite.

That's just asking too much. The best thing that could happen for bettors would be if Clemson loses on September 3 at Auburn. Clemson could sustain a loss and that would drop the price to something more reasonable. We'd love to bet on DeShaun Watson and in game-to-game wagering, we'll definitely be looking at him this fall. But for a national championship run, we need a better number than we're currently seeing.