Clemson beat Alabama to win the national title. It was a grand achievement. It vaulted Dabo Swinney, at least for an offseason, into the top-tier coaches. He should get at least a 13-month grace period before someone calls him a fraud again.
Tiger fans will be thinking dynasty. Our pro-rated SRS formula was bullish heading into next season. But, there is a reason to believe Clemson may be the 2016 contender that stumbles in 2017.
Clemson amassed a 7-1 record in one-score games in 2016, 11-2 over the past two seasons. Some of that was luck. Much of that was having Deshaun Watson to come through late in games when the other team did not.
Watson leaves for the NFL next season. So do leading rusher Wayne Gallman and three of Clemson’s top four receivers. Losing an elite quarterback is the toughest roster loss to sustain year-to-year. Clemson narrowly winning so many games suggests that even a modest decline in team performance could have an immoderate impact on the Tigers’ W-L record.
Michigan State is an extreme example. The Spartans went 6-1 in one-score games in 2015 with Connor Cook, winning the B1G and reaching the College Football Playoff. The one loss was on a bad call. In 2016, MSU lost both Cook and their top two receivers. The Spartans had no ready replacements. MSU went 1-3 in close games (1-4 if you discount Michigan stretching the lead to 9 at the end). The Spartans finished 3-9 and missed bowl play.
Florida State may be a better parallel. The Seminoles went 7-0 in one-score games in 2014 with a third-year Jameis Winston (6-0 in games he started). Florida State has fallen back from playoff contender to where they were under Fisher with anyone else at quarterback: high floor, a boat load of talent on both sides of the ball, not meeting stratospheric expectation levels, finishing in the Top 10-15. They have gone 10-3 both seasons (5-3 in one-score games).
Clemson may regress to their mean under Swinney before Watson. As with Florida State, that was good but not great quarterback play. Clemson ran up double-digit win totals. But, it’s worth remembering the Tigers went 2-7 against Top 25 opponents during the regular season from 2012-14. Those two wins were both by one score. One came in the opener against an Auburn team that finished 3-8. The other came against a Georgia team that ended up 8-5.
That’s not to say there isn’t a ton to like about what was a young Clemson team heading into 2017. But, the difference between 10-3 and the playoff is having that little extra something in pivotal moments. Clemson may not have that next year. Things could get hairy.