The impact of Saturday’s meeting between Clemson and Notre Dame on the ACC title race might be minimal, but its effect on the College Football Playoff landscape is significant.
Because of the ACC’s no-division format in 2020 and the fact that the Tigers and Fighting Irish are not only the two best teams but the only two undefeated teams in the conference, the loser of Saturday’s contest in South Bend, Indiana, will still have at least an 82% chance to reach the ACC title game.
But the playoff leverage is very real. In fact, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, no remaining scheduled game has a higher impact on the playoff race than Saturday’s game in South Bend. Notre Dame’s chances to reach the CFP would drop to 13% if it can’t pull out a victory at home, but would jump all the way to 47% if it can.
Meanwhile, Clemson would fall to a 48% chance with a loss, while a win would provide a more meager bump from its current chances (72%) to 84%. That’s the long way of saying: There’s a lot at stake, even if it isn’t an elimination game for either team.
Both squads would be heavily favored to reach the playoff if they lost Saturday and ran the table afterward, but a loss this weekend would effectively remove their margin for error.
For Notre Dame, that’s particularly significant because it, as far as ESPN’s Football Power Index is concerned, is not as good as Clemson. Regardless of the result of Saturday’s game, Notre Dame has only a 45% chance to win all of its remaining non-Clemson scheduled contests. With a loss on Saturday, the Fighting Irish would have to hit on that 45% and then beat Clemson in the ACC championship game.
Losing on Saturday also cuts off the real possibility of Notre Dame winning all of its scheduled games, losing to Clemson in the ACC championship, and still getting in. Should Notre Dame do that — win all of its games, including against Clemson, before losing to the Tigers the second time around — the Fighting Irish would have a 62% chance of earning a spot in the playoff, per the Allstate Playoff Predictor.
Clemson’s story is similar, but it has a better chance — 74% — to win its remaining non-Notre Dame scheduled games. And it, too, would have about a 60% chance of earning the selection committee’s favor if it won Saturday but lost the ACC championship. The ACC doesn’t have a great shot at putting multiple teams into the playoff, but it’s more likely with a Fighting Irish victory: a 12% chance as opposed to just a 5% shot with a Clemson win.
But, of course, there’s an added wrinkle to all of this: Trevor Lawrence. The Tigers quarterback’s current absence, due to COVID-19, has two separate effects.
First, it hurts Clemson’s chances to win. That’s quite obvious given both Lawrence’s skill and that Clemson nearly lost to Boston College last weekend.
And it isn’t fully reflected in FPI, so it’s likely that the 66% chance we give the Tigers to win Saturday is a bit of an overestimate.
More nebulously, it raises questions about what the committee might do. Should Clemson lose to Notre Dame without Lawrence, would it give the Tigers the benefit of the doubt? Let’s play this out.
If Clemson loses Saturday but wins out afterward, it would be a one-loss champion and a virtual shoo-in for the playoff this season. Should it lose again and not win the ACC, it almost certainly would be out of the playoff hunt. Lawrence being out Saturday changes neither scenario. What if the Tigers lost again but still won the conference title?
In that instance, assuming the second loss comes to Virginia Tech, Playoff Predictor gives the Tigers just a 16% chance to reach the CFP. Would the committee forgive a loss to Notre Dame without Lawrence? That is a question we can’t turn to the numbers on. But it would be strange. Because in effect, the committee would be guaranteeing a victory for Clemson in its toughest regular-season game simply on the circumstance of not having its quarterback. Which would be better in retrospect than playing the game with its quarterback!
Ultimately, the Playoff Predictor can’t know exactly how the committee might treat Lawrence’s absence, particularly in this unique season. But even with that lingering variable, what is clear is both Clemson and Notre Dame’s chances to reach the playoff are considerably better with a win against the other.