Heel, SEC fans.

I’m sure that many of you read that headline in hopes of hearing a lot of barking about how favorable Clemson’s schedule is now that it’s loaded with more ACC foes than ever. You’d prefer I point out how the Tigers should now be able to sleepwalk their way to their 6th consecutive Playoff berth.

While I certainly wouldn’t bet against that extremely likely possibility, that path is certainly worth discussing. It’s unique compared to past Clemson paths to the Playoff, yet it’s also similar.

Before we dig into that, I want to preface this by pointing out that in the Playoff era, 2019 Ohio State was the only Power 5 team to go 9-0 in conference play and win a conference championship game. A Power 5 conference with an 8-game conference schedule has yet to miss the Playoff. A Power 5 conference with a 9-game conference schedule has had a 50% success rate of making the Playoff. A Power 5 conference with a 10-game conference schedule has, um, never existed in the Playoff era. Until now.

One other thing is worth mentioning. Nobody is predicting who or when a team will be significantly impacted by positive COVID-19 tests. That’s impossible. All we can do is forecast a team’s success based on the information that we have — what players are returning, what incoming talent is there, which players are out for the year because of injuries, who opted out, etc.

So let’s get into it:

The first thing I noticed when I saw Clemson’s new schedule was …

Notre Dame.

On Nov. 7, Clemson will take on an Irish team that quietly capped its 3rd consecutive season with double-digit wins. That’s a likely preseason top-10 team with one of the nation’s better returning signal-callers in Ian Book that will get to host Clemson. Beating Notre Dame twice in a month is certainly a new challenge with the Irish fully in the ACC this year.

Why did the ACC not give Clemson the most favorable path possible, like the Big Ten did with its contenders? That’s an interesting question. It could be that the ACC didn’t want to get treated like a league that was in jeopardy of needing to crank out an unbeaten conference champ. Every Power 5 conference should have at least 1 game featuring a game with top-10 teams. Imagine if the ACC never had that in 2020 while the SEC had 6-8 of those potential top-10 matchups. That wouldn’t be the best look, regardless of whether Clemson ran the table.

Oh, speaking of Clemson and whether it can run the table … the schedule!

  • Sept. 12: at Wake Forest
  • Sept. 19: Nonconference TBD
  • Sept. 26: Open
  • Oct. 3: vs. Virginia
  • Oct. 10: vs. Miami
  • Oct. 17: at Georgia Tech
  • Oct. 24: vs. Syracuse
  • Oct. 31: vs. Boston College
  • Nov. 7: at Notre Dame
  • Nov. 14: Open
  • Nov. 21: at Florida State
  • Nov. 28: vs. Pitt
  • Dec. 5: at Virginia Tech

Am I the only one who looked at that Nov. 28 game against Pitt and thought about the possibility of Pat Narduzzi casually flipping the college football world on its head again? Let us never forget what he did at halftime of that Miami game in 2017:

Don’t consider that my way of saying I’m absolutely predicting another peak-Narduzzi moment, or that I think Nathan Peterman and Matt Canada are coming back to Pitt to walk into Clemson and steal a win … but what a sleeper game that is.

Can you possibly have a more favorable start to the season?

There was a lot of talk the past month or so that we’d see rivalry games moved up to the front of the season to ensure that in case the season did need to be stopped, at least those games would be played. If what we’ve seen from the Big Ten and ACC were any indication, which I think they were, there was some major pushback on that from the contenders.

Think about this. If you’re Clemson, you’d want no part of some massive headliner to open the season. This has been the most bizarre, restricted college football offseason on record. In a year in which there’s only 1 possible Group of 5/FCS matchups to get the kinks worked out, it makes total sense why Clemson got such a favorable early-season draw.

Goodness, look at that first month again:

  • Sept. 12: at Wake Forest
  • Sept. 19: Nonconference TBD
  • Sept. 26: Open
  • Oct. 3: vs. Virginia

To recap, that’s a road game against a team that Clemson beat 52-3 last season, a TBD Group of 5/FCS team that’ll be entirely of Clemson’s choosing, an open date and a home game against a 9-win Virginia team … that Clemson beat 62-17 in the ACC Championship. And this Virginia team will have a new quarterback.


Again, that’s assuming that these teams will be as close to healthy as possible. If we’re being honest, though, Clemson could win all of those games even if it was forced to play an entire game with 2nd-stringers. By the way, the ACC isn’t about to force the Tigers into that spot. I absolutely expect to see multiple contenders push for a postponed game in the event that they lose several starters to mandated quarantines. Maybe Clemson is one of them. Those open dates are there for a reason.

So when could Clemson possibly lose a game?

I’m asking that hypothetical while knowing that Trevor Lawrence has yet to lose an ACC game in his career. If you include conference championships, the Tigers are 18-0 with an average margin of victory of 36 points against ACC competition the past 2 years. Since Lawrence suffered that injury in the Chase Brice-led Syracuse win in 2018, that thriller at UNC in 2019 was the only time an ACC team stayed within 2 scores of Clemson.

Speaking of UNC and the fightin’ Mack Browns, it’s a bummer that we won’t get a Clemson-UNC game until possibly the ACC Championship, which will simply be determined by the top 2 teams in the league without divisions. What Chazz Surratt and UNC did defensively to confuse Lawrence in that game last year was masterful. We need that rematch with a more mature Sam Howell. If we get that, yes, that’s a much better chance of Clemson falling in the ACC Championship than we saw against Pitt in 2018 or Virginia in 2019.

Some are going to circle that Miami game as a possible upset because of the arrival of D’Eriq King, but I can’t imagine that offensive line somehow slowing down Clemson’s front for 60 minutes.

The most likely regular-season hiccups for Clemson are Nov. 7 in South Bend and Dec. 5 in Blacksburg. Granted, road trips to Notre Dame and Virginia Tech will obviously have a different feel with limited or no crowds. Does “Enter Sandman” still slam in an empty stadium? I couldn’t tell you.

But while the in-game atmosphere might be lacking, making long trips with all the current restrictions is still going to be a headache. Additional testing, COVID-friendly travel accommodations and ever-changing travel rosters could make for a strange set of circumstances to play a road game.

On paper, those 2 road matchups still favor Clemson, though. A Virginia Tech defense in a post-Bud Foster world has questions to answer, especially after possible Round 1 prospect Caleb Farley opted out for the 2020 season. Notre Dame ranks No. 102 in FBS in percentage of returning defensive production has some major holes to fill on that side of the ball. That’s not exactly the foundation one would expect to shut down Lawrence and Travis Etienne.

But both of those teams will have plenty of time to figure those things out by the time the Clemson matchup rolls around. Either one could catch Clemson on the right day a la UNC in 2019, Syracuse in 2017 or Pitt in 2016. That’s not out of the realm of possibility in a season that could be decided by which contender avoids COVID-19 absences best. Who knows how the Playoff selection committee will process that.

If you’re keeping your fingers crossed for a Clemson letdown, you’re holding onto hope that the ACC has more possible Top-25 worthy teams than it’s had since Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State teams were relevant. The addition of Notre Dame certainly helped that case, and improvements expected from up-and-coming teams with Year 2 coaches at Louisville and UNC will also strengthen the league.

Clemson’s path to another Playoff berth is still plenty favorable, but maybe in a year of the unexpected, nothing should be assumed.