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Clemson still fighting for national respect

Another season, another 10 wins for Clemson.

Another season, another big victory against a Power 5 opponent in a bowl game.

Another season, another Top-25 finish.

Seems about time to give Clemson its proper due. But there remains a disconnect between what people think about Clemson and what the facts show. How else to explain this rather interesting note:

The 2014 season marked the fourth straight year and fifth time in the six full seasons Dabo Swinney has been head coach that the Tigers had a higher final AP ranking than their preseason ranking.

The question, then, is why?

Perhaps it is because outsiders want to cling to the antiquated term used to describe the program when it loses games, often in head-scratching fashion. But people, we are not living in the past. Clemson has not lost to an unranked team since 2011.

Look at the actual results: Clemson’s only losses in 2014 were to teams that finished in the final top 10 of the AP and coaches polls (Florida State, Georgia and Georgia Tech). Go back the past three seasons, and Clemson’s only losses were to teams that finished in the final top 10 (Florida State and South Carolina in 2012 and 2013). It just so happens Clemson, Florida State and South Carolina have all been really good all at once. Failing to beat both consistently seems to be a harsh way of judging a team.

Here are a few more illuminating notes, for good measure.

  • Clemson joined Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Oregon as the only schools to finish in the top 15 for the third straight year.

  • Clemson joined Alabama, Florida State and Oregon as the only schools to finish in the top 25 for the fourth straight year.

  • Clemson, Alabama, Northern Illinois and Oregon are the only schools to post four straight 10-win seasons.

  • Clemson’s 42 wins over the past four seasons are a school record for a four-year period.

But Clemson is in a similar spot to the ACC as a whole: narratives die hard. Because they often win out as a lazy fallback. Let’s use the final 2014 AP poll as a case study. Eight Power 5 teams finished with three losses. Clemson was ranked last in the group, at No. 15.

Georgia Tech and Georgia won head-to-head meetings, so there is no quibbling with their rank. But let’s look at two other SEC schools ranked ahead -- Mississippi State and Missouri. Mississippi State ended the season with losses in three of its final four games. Its best wins -- against Texas A&M, Auburn, and LSU -- all lost their luster after a horrible bowl showing from the SEC West.

Yet the Bulldogs finished No. 11, getting penalized far less than a team from the ACC would if it ended in a similar manner. If Florida State lost three of its final four, you think the Seminoles would finish the season at No. 11? No.

Clemson and Mississippi State each beat one team ranked in the final AP Top 25. All three losses for both teams were to ranked opponents. But Clemson finished the season on a three-game winning streak; Clemson had the No. 1 defense in America; and Clemson managed to win 10 games without quarterback Deshaun Watson as its full-time starter for most of the season.

How does any of this put Mississippi State ahead?

Now on to Missouri, a team with a much worse loss on its resume (Indiana). Its best win was probably against Minnesota in its bowl game. It finished the season with zero wins against teams ranked in the final Top 25. Yet, Missouri was one spot ahead of Clemson in the AP ranking, and a peculiar four spots ahead in the coaches’ poll.

We could also look at Wisconsin’s resume. The Badgers also had one win against a final Top 25 team, but a much worse loss (Northwestern) and was blown out in the Big Ten title game. Ohio State might have won the national championship, but 59-0 is hard to ignore.

So essentially, Clemson is trailed by misperceptions about its own program and its own conference. Is becoming a playoff contender the only way to start changing the narrative? Because clearly, winning does not seem to be doing the job.