clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

All the ways one strange Louisville-Clemson play altered history

New, 16 comments

Inches separated Louisville from the Tigers’ 2016 ACC Atlantic title. Those inches changed the sport, possibly for years to come.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society illustration.

October 1, 2016
Clemson, South Carolina

#5 Clemson leads #3 Louisville 42-36 with 40 seconds left. Louisville has fourth-and-7 at the Clemson nine-yard line. A first down extends the game, a touchdown wins it, and given Louisville’s firepower, the former would likely lead to the latter.

Louisville false starts, making it fourth-and-12 at the 14. On ABC, Kirk Herbstreit notes the Cardinals having more space might make them harder to defend. Clemson plays soft coverage on Louisville’s four receivers, including James Quick, who catches a pass in the flat from Lamar Jackson.

Quick has to fight through Clemson’s Marcus Edmond, but appears to have a chance at a first down. However, he apparently doesn’t know exactly where he needs to go, as his QB will suggest after the game.

The line-to-gain indicator, supposed to inform players of the first-down line, is not where it usually is. He steps out a yard short, and Louisville loses.

It’s bizarre the line-to-gain marker is farther back and harder to see than usual, and some Louisville fans are furious about the fact that there’s a celebrating Clemson fan in ACC gear right next to the marker.

This footstep becomes the difference in the ACC race and a catalyst toward the Tigers winning their first national championship since 1981. Louisville finishes 9-4.

What if Quick made it one more yard and Louisville’s Heisman winner scored a TD? A lot would be different.

Clemson no longer wins the division, and Louisville probably wins the whole ACC.

We can’t say for certain how a different Louisville-Clemson result would’ve changed what came after. That’ll be a theme throughout this post.

But a safe bet is that Louisville would’ve won the conference. In reality, the Cardinals and Tigers went 7-1, but Clemson won on the tiebreaker. Flip that game, and the Cardinals win the Atlantic by two games. Eliminate Clemson’s later loss to Pitt, and Louisville still has the tiebreaker. Nobody else in the ACC came close to the Cardinals, whose tightest margin was a TD over UVA.

The Cardinals would’ve played a solid Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship. The Hokies lost by a TD to Clemson in real life, and SP+ says the Cards should’ve been about 7.5-point favorites in that game.

Does Louisville make the Playoff? That depends on if beating Clemson will make the Cardinals, uh, more inspired against Houston and Kentucky.

Louisville was 9-1 and #3 when it visited Houston in Week 12. The Cougars had lost to Navy and SMU and would finish 9-4. They had Ed Oliver, but this was not the kind of team that should’ve produced a 36-10 rout and sacked Jackson 11 times (more on this later).

That ended Louisville’s Playoff hopes. They threw in a three-point loss the next week, when Jackson fumbled at the Kentucky 10 with less than two minutes left.

Going 10-2 with just these two losses wouldn’t have gotten the Cardinals into the Playoff. But they could’ve afforded to lose either game on its own. And maybe beating Clemson would’ve increased their late-game aptitude in some way against Kentucky, or something.

Louisville’s schedule strength as a 12-1 ACC champ would’ve been about what Clemson’s was, and the Tigers were the #2 seed despite a loss to a four-loss Pitt.

Either way, Clemson likely misses the Playoff.

If Clemson still loses to Pitt, that’s that. Two losses would’ve been too many.

If Clemson doesn’t lose to Pitt, the Tigers are 11-1 with only a close loss to a Playoff contender, but no ACC title.

For starters, Clemson would’ve ranked behind Ohio State (who also lacked a conference title and only lost to a Playoff contender). The Buckeyes had faced a tougher schedule to that point, including a blowout win at Oklahoma.

And Washington (2-1 vs. the Selection Sunday top 25) likely gets the final spot over Clemson (also 2-1, adjusting for Pitt), because when all other things are pretty equal, the committee prefers conference titles as tiebreakers. An 11-1 Clemson could’ve also finished behind two-loss Big Ten champ Penn State, thanks to PSU’s win over Ohio State.

So if Louisville only lost to Houston (an ugly loss, so let’s bump Louisville a spot lower than Clemson was), the Playoff would’ve been something like:

  • #1 Alabama (13-0, SEC champ) vs. #4 Washington (12-1 Pac-12 champ)
  • #2 Ohio State (11-1, non-champ) vs. #3 Louisville (12-1 or 13-0, ACC champ)

If Louisville doesn’t make the Playoff, we have the most chaotic race so far. Penn State makes the field.

If Louisville still loses to Houston and Kentucky, the final spot goes to 11-2 Big Ten champion Penn State, the real-life #5. The Nittany Lions were ahead of 10-2 Michigan (out by virtue of the J.T. Barrett Spot) and 10-2 Oklahoma, which lost to the same Houston.

(A question for another day is whether Houston, which helped knock out two contenders in this scenario, would’ve made the Playoff without losses to Navy, SMU, and Memphis.)

  • #1 Alabama (13-0, SEC champ) vs. #4 Penn State (11-2, Big Ten champ)
  • #2 Ohio State (11-1, non-champ) vs. #3 Washington (12-1 Pac-12 champ)

If Louisville makes it, Ohio State probably scores a point in the Fiesta Bowl!

Congrats to Ohio State fans, who are spared from years of jokes about how their team got shut out by Clemson.

The Louisville-Ohio State point spread would’ve been close. The Buckeyes might’ve started as slight underdogs, according to post-bowls SP+. But they definitely would’ve scored, possibly even more than Louisville.

If Louisville beats Ohio State, Jackson gets sacked about 27 times by Alabama.

The Cardinals’ line struggled with average pass rushes. Jackson got sacked 46 times, preposterous for a Heisman winner with his athletic profile, even though he ran into several of those. In Louisville’s IRL bowl, LSU sacked Jackson eight times, and 2016’s only defense better than LSU’s was Bama’s.

Put Louisville’s blockers against Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, Ryan Anderson, Reuben Foster, Tim Williams, and Rashaan Evans, then make Jackson’s receivers get open against Minkah Fitzpatrick, Marlon Humphrey, Eddie Jackson, and Ronnie Harrison (I’ve named 10 top-150 NFL Draft picks), and ... it’s probably for the best Louisville did not play in the title game.

With Clemson out, Bama’s Playoff path would’ve been all but clear.

Ohio State, it seems clear with hindsight, would’ve gotten clocked by Bama. Washington proved it wasn’t on the Tide’s level. And please don’t let Bama near our beloved Jackson.

The only remaining hope? Penn State in the Peach Bowl semi.

Retrospectively, this should be a blowout too, with SP+ projecting a 13-point Bama win. Let’s dream for a minute, though.

Penn State had won nine in a row, beating Ohio State and Wisconsin, which only gave up more than 20 points all year but let Penn State score 38. In Saquon Barkley, PSU had the rare back who might’ve dented Bama’s defense. (I realize Leonard Fournette couldn’t, but this is dreaming time.) In Chris Godwin and Mike Gesicki, they had receivers who could’ve hacked it at times against Bama.

They also had a weird Team of Destiny thing, outscoring teams 332-133 in second halves. I told you we’re just dreaming.

This also means Michigan in the Rose Bowl against USC. Hopefully the Wolverines and Trojans play an epic just like Penn State and USC did.

The Alabama-Clemson duopoly that defined the back half of the decade doesn’t exist, at least not in its current form.

  • Instead of two titles apiece, it’s probably 3-1 Bama.
  • It might even be Bama 2, Clemson 1, somebody else 1.
  • Dabo Swinney is not a gazillionaire and remains a mere millionaire. Maybe he changes his view on players being paid, via class solidarity.
  • Deshaun Watson’s college legacy is merely that of a great QB who’s remembered fondly by everyone. He’s not DESHAUN WATSON.
  • Clemson’s recruiting perhaps takes longer to kick into high gear, as it did in time for #1 recruit Trevor Lawrence (and other #1 types).
  • Clemson’s 2018 semifinal win over Notre Dame is now even funnier, because while the Irish are just face-planting in yet another big bowl, now there’s a little more surprise.
  • Clemson’s 2018 title win over Alabama — if we assume Lawrence still goes to Clemson — is now way more shocking. The Tigers’ 28-point margin already made it the most stunning title game ever.

Let’s say Louisville does make the Playoff. What becomes of Bobby Petrino?

Jason Kirk, longtime Petrino correspondent, explains:

In the actual-reality 2006, we know Louisville won its conference and a big bowl, and then Petrino left.

In our alternate-reality 2016, let’s say Louisville won its conference and a big bowl (semifinal against Ohio State). Does Petrino leave again?

Petrino’s brain is full of horny flies, and no one knows what they might whisper to him. It’s worth noting neither Arkansas nor the Falcons were hiring, so he couldn’t have kept the same cycle going forever.

WKU was in the market, though, and if you’re certain Petrino wouldn’t parlay an old Conference USA fling into a Louisville extension he could break a month later by leaving for the Broncos, then you haven’t studied enough Petrino.

And yeah, Bama would’ve been set for a three-peat, the major level’s first since 1930s Minnesota.

The Tide already had the 2015 title. They’d probably win in 2017, too. Maybe you think Jalen Hurts having a 2016 title makes it less likely Nick Saban benches him for Tua Tagovailoa in 2017’s final, but do you really think that’s how Saban makes decisions? No, you do not.

The 2016 Tide would’ve also been the third wire-to-wire #1 ever, joining 1999 Florida State and 2004 USC. Had the Tide pulled it off, they’d have done so by winning 15 games, more than any previous modern champ.

So if Louisville had taken one more step against Clemson, Bama’s dynasty would’ve added some three-year history and been highlighted by quite arguably the best team ever. There are cases for several, including the Clemson of two years later, but a wire-to-wire champ playing more and harder games (per SRS) than both other wire-to-wire champs is a strong argument.

Bama’s 2016 title at least has downstream effects on 2017:

  • People are even madder (but also more resigned to fate) when they see the one-loss, non-SEC champion Tide make the Playoff after getting dismantled in the Iron Bowl.
  • There’s a non-zero chance Oklahoma, not Clemson, is the #1 seed in 2017’s Playoff, because human beings consider past seasons even when they claim they’re not. We’d have been denied an all-time great Georgia-Oklahoma Rose Bowl, and the semifinal matchups would’ve been UGA-Bama and Clemson-OU.
  • Basically Saban’s entire assistant group would soon leave him, for one reason or another. An unknowable is how a three-peat might’ve affected this staff retention.
  • And maybe winning three in a row would’ve prompted Saban to retire.

So actually, maybe this would’ve been worth it for almost everyone.