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How 2018 Clemson fits into the Best Team Ever debate(s)

This is college football, so a TON of teams have claims to the title. The Tigers should be considered an option.

Trevor Lawrence Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

College football has had so many Great Teams, we can’t agree on which 149 have been the best teams in each season, let alone which of those 149 is the best ever.

“There was a lot of talk about Best Ever all year long,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney after demolishing Alabama. “We were never in that conversation. But tonight, there’s no doubt.”

Since Clemson won an undefeated national title, blew away most of the teams it played, and annihilated the only team on its level, it’s fair to wonder how the Tigers joined that conversation.

Well, conversations. Plural. Because not only will we never agree on which team was the best, we’ll never agree on what we mean by “best.” How college football is that?

Here are a few things people might mean when they call one team the GOAT, along with how 2018 Clemson compares in each conversation.

The 2001 Miami argument

Some fans base their assessment of a college team on what its members would later do in the NFL. These Canes were one of several recent champs to be loaded with pro talent, leading to them being named the OPEN-AND-SHUT, UNDISPUTED GREATEST, per nostalgic sectors of the internet.

But if we go by only what the 2001 Canes did as a college team, they’re real far from the only GOAT option. Most talented doesn’t necessarily mean greatest. And is Ken Dorsey really the QB of the best team ever?

How does Clemson stack up? Probably pretty well, even if it doesn’t produce Pro Football Hall of Famers. It’s too early to guess about future careers.

We do know the Tigers had a load of pros, including 3 of the next 17 draft picks and more where those came from. And 2018 Clemson probably had something the 2001 Canes didn’t: a quarterback who starts more than 13 games in the NFL.

The 1995 Nebraska argument

Sheer, hilarious dominance. Joyful wind sprints up and down the field as opponents cry themselves to sleep.

(We could call this the 1902 Michigan argument, but running up a margin of 550-0 is out of the question, so let’s stick to modernity.)

Those Huskers finished with an average score of 53-15. They aren’t the only champ to post a margin that stupid, but their 62-24 humiliation of #2 Florida in the championship made them synonymous with the concept.

A couple similar, recent champs:

  • The 2013 Noles posted a 52-12 average score, squeaking past Auburn at the end.
  • 2005 Texas hit you with a 50-16 average, beating #2 USC by a nose.

How does Clemson stack up? A step behind the gaudiest producers, but comfortably ahead of the average champ. Clemson’s differential is 44-14 (almost its exact score against Bama) against a schedule comparable to the other teams here.

The 1999 Florida State argument

The first to ever finish an entire season as AP #1 from preseason all the way to the post-bowls poll (with asterisks, because some others probably would’ve done it if such polls had existed at the time). 2004 USC would later do it as well.

How does Clemson stack up? The Tigers were #2 for most of the year, but slipped as low as #4 during a QB battle before surging to #1 by the end. Historians will ding Clemson for that midseason slip, not that Clemson cares.

The 1897 Penn argument

That was the last FBS-level team to go 15-0 before 2018 Clemson.

How does Clemson stack up? Per my calculations, 1897 Penn didn’t beat arguably Alabama’s most talented team ever, so I’m going to go ahead and say this is the main point on Clemson’s resume.

The 1945 Army argument

Simply put: how much does your team look like a college all-star team? A mid-World War II Army got to stack its roster full of top talent to a degree not possible at any other point in history.

How does Clemson stack up? Nobody will ever top Army at this, and the Tigers were a bit too young at the skill positions in 2018 to get that kind of shine, but they had 2019 Heisman favorite Trevor Lawrence, the 2018 Heisman’s top running back in Travis Etienne, several 2019 first-rounders on defense, and a consensus All-American offensive lineman in Mitch Hyatt, plus a horrifying crew of wide receivers.

Also, let’s give extra credit to Clemson for beating this all-star team:

Bama entered the Clemson game with one of the highest-touted players at almost every position group. Tua Tagovailoa was one of the closest Heisman runner-ups ever and might’ve won if he’d stayed healthy, WR Jerry Jeudy and DL Quinnen Williams were named the best players at their positions, Jonah Williams was the country’s only unanimous All-America offensive lineman, Deionte Thompson was a consensus All-America DB, Josh Jacobs was the 2019 draft’s top RB, and so on.

The 1971 Nebraska argument

Which team slapped aside the most pretenders to its throne?

These undefeated Huskers pummeled almost everyone, including wins over final #2 Oklahoma, #3 Colorado, and #4 Alabama, plus #17 Iowa State.

A team in the Playoff era beating the entire rest of the final top four would be one thing (nobody’s done it yet), but imagine somehow pulling that off in the pre-BCS era.

How does Clemson stack up? Better than most, if not the greatest-ever list of conquests. Humiliating previous #1 Alabama and final #5 Notre Dame is a damn nice start. Lots of champs don’t have two final top-five wins, let alone by a total of 74-19. Clemson also beat final #15 Syracuse and #16 Texas A&M.

The advanced stats argument

Well, this is also the 1971 Nebraska argument. S&P+’s highest-rated undefeated/untied team since World War II: those ‘71 Huskers.

Sports-Reference.com SRS’ highest-rated unblemished teams outside of World War II, even including teams from before the 1940s: 1949 Notre Dame and those ‘71 Huskers.

How does Clemson stack up? SRS considers 2018 Clemson the best team of the 21st century and the 17th-best undefeated/untied team of all time.

The 2005 Texas argument

If you win the BEST GAME EVER, that makes you the BEST TEAM EVER, right?

How does Clemson stack up? On paper, the 2018 title game compared well to that Rose Bowl in terms of team quality compared to the rest of the country:

Computers almost never see two teams tower so far over everyone else. S&P+ says Bama and Clemson are closer together and farther ahead of the rest than any other two teams have been in the Playoff era.

ESPN analyst Brad Edwards says the network’s Football Power Index has tracked about 11,000 all-FBS games since 2005, the start of its data. Only two have come between two teams that FPI pegged as more than 31 points better than the average FBS team. One was Vince Young’s USC-Texas Rose Bowl, and the other is this one.

Obviously, there was little drama in the second half. But it’s not Clemson’s fault Bama couldn’t keep up.

The 2018 Clemson argument

Forget era-adjusting. Which undefeated champ would win if you time-traveled all of them into a tournament and let them play on January 7, 2019?

How does Clemson stack up? 1891 Yale and 1917 Georgia Tech, you were great, but I do not think you can stop Justyn Ross from having a 500-yard game. As athletes get bigger, stronger, and faster, this will always tilt toward recency.

And since Clemson wiped the floor with one of Bama’s best teams ever, we can comfortably say the Tigers could’ve at least hung with any modern champ.

This is the most entertaining argument because it’s the hardest to prove one way or the other. Let’s just say Clemson would have a chance against anybody.

A little bit of everything!

There are so many valid contenders not mentioned in this post. Listing all of them wasn’t at all the intent of this particular blog, though. I’m just laying out what most of the arguments are, not every team that could possibly belong in them.

Since it’s impossible to even agree on how to judge such a thing, it would make sense to pull a little bit of each of these arguments into one MECHA ARGUMENT.

How does Clemson stack up? The 2018 Tigers hold their own in most of these criteria, and in some of them, they have among the best cases ever. They didn’t beat the toughest schedule, but “15-0” and “44-16” are great talking points. I think it’s fair to say this team should be an option in the debate.

Your favorite team’s most favorable argument

I think this is the most crucial evidence of all.

How does Clemson stack up? Terribly, unless Clemson is your favorite team.