The impact of Saturday’s Clemson-Notre Dame meeting on the ACC title race may be minimal, but the impact on the college football playoff landscape is significant.
Due to the no-division format of the ACC in 2020 and the fact that the Tigers and Fighting Irish are not only the top two teams, but also the only two undefeated teams at the conference, the loser of the competition will be in South on Saturday Bend, Indiana, still have at least an 82% chance of making the ACC title game.
But the playoff leverage is very real. According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, no remaining scheduled game will have a higher impact on the playoff race than Saturday’s game in South Bend. Notre Dame’s chances of hitting the CFP would drop to 13% if they can’t win at home, but increase to 47% if they can.
Meanwhile, Clemson would fall to a 48% chance with loss, while a win would bring a more meager increase from his current chances (72%) to 84%. That’s the long way to say: There’s a lot at stake, even if it’s not a qualifying game for either team.
Both teams would very much prefer to make the playoffs if they lost on Saturday and run the table after that, but losing that weekend would effectively reduce their margin of error.
This is especially important to Notre Dame as it isn’t as good as Clemson for ESPN’s Football Power Index. Regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s game, Notre Dame only has a 45% chance of winning all remaining non-Clemson competitions. With a loss on Saturday, the Fighting Irish would have to hit that 45% and then beat Clemson in the ACC championship game.
A loss on Saturday also reduces the real possibility that Notre Dame will win all scheduled games, lose to Clemson in the ACC Championship and get in anyway. Should Notre Dame do this – win all games first, including against Clemson Losing the second time to the Tigers – the Fighting Irish would have a 62% chance of securing a place in the playoffs, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor.
Clemson’s story is similar, but it has a better chance – 74% – of winning the remaining non-Notre Dame scheduled games. And it would also have a 60% chance of earning the selection committee’s favor if it won on Saturday but lost the ACC championship. The ACC doesn’t have a good chance of getting multiple teams into the playoffs, but the Fighting Irish is more likely to win: a 12% chance as opposed to just 5% if Clemson wins.
But of course there is an additional crease: Trevor Lawrence. The Tiger quarterback’s current absence due to COVID-19 has two separate implications.
First, it hurts Clemson’s chances of winning. That’s pretty obvious given Lawrence’s skill set and the fact that Clemson almost lost to Boston College last weekend.
And it’s not fully reflected in the FPI. So it’s likely that the 66% chance we’re giving the Tigers to win on Saturday is somewhat overestimated.
Even more nebulously, it raises questions about what the committee could do. Should Clemson lose to Notre Dame without Lawrence, would that give the Tigers the benefit of the doubt? Let’s play this through.
If Clemson loses on Saturday but wins after that, it would be a one-loss champion and a virtual shoo-in for this season’s playoffs. If it loses again and the ACC doesn’t win, it would almost certainly be out of the playoff chase. Lawrence, who is out on Saturday, does not change either scenario. What if the Tigers lost again and still won the conference title?
Assuming the second loss to Virginia Tech, Playoff Predictor only gives the Tigers a 16% chance of hitting the CFP. Without Lawrence, would the committee forgive Notre Dame a loss? That is a question that we cannot relate to. But it would be strange. Indeed, the committee would guarantee Clemson a win in his toughest game of the regular season if he didn’t have a quarterback. In retrospect, it would be better than playing the game With his quarterback!
Ultimately, the playoff predictor has no way of knowing exactly how the committee might handle Lawrence’s absence, especially this unique season. But even with this lingering variable, it is clear that both Clemson and Notre Dame have a vastly better chance of making the playoffs if they beat the other.