For the fourth consecutive season, Clemson is not only in the College Football Playoff but ranked as a top-two seed in the four-team field to decide college football's national champion. The Tigers have a 3-2 playoff record, 2-0 against Oklahoma (2015) and Ohio State (2016) but 1-2 against Nick Saban and Alabama, including 1-1 in title games. The Tigers are coming off a 24-6 loss to the Tide in a semifinal last season.
It doesn't take much to argue that one of the top two teams in the country of the era can win a national championship, but if it's going to happen, here are going to be a few of the reasons why:
1. Ian Book (and Kyler Murray) haven't seen a defense like this: The Tigers rank No. 1 in the country in rushing defense at 2.40 yards per attempt allowed. And after stuffing the run on first and second down, defensive coordinator Brent Venables is able to turn up the pressure with a unit with the third-best sack count in the country (46) and second-best tackles for loss total (121 TFLs). In a season of eye-popping numbers, the storyline of Clemson's excellence on the defensive side of the ball fell below the fold.
Some of that is because Clemson's defense, like that of Alabama, is expected to be excellent year-in and year-out. Clemson being good on defense is a boring annual tradition, but this group might be historically great. Alabama faced three of the top 26 defenses in terms of yards per play allowed. Oklahoma played one (No. 24 TCU), and Notre Dame played none. Clemson presents issues with its top-ranked defense that give them an advantage against anyone in the country, maybe even the mighty Tide.
Also, this is the last run for Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and likely a few more draft-eligible Tigers from this defense. They've won and lost at the highest level together, and there is definitely motivation to finish this year in a momentous way. If it's third-and-8 in the third quarter and the Tigers are desperate for a stop with the title on the line, there's not a unit in the country I'd trade for that group Venables has up front.
2. Experience counts: Clemson has experienced the playoff at every level. It has both won and lost CFP semifinals and both won and lost in the CFP National Championship. Not only is this one of the most experienced teams at the top of college football -- more than 50 players on the roster juniors or seniors -- but it's arguably the team with the most playoff experience. "We know what to do, and we know what not to do," Dexter Lawrence told CBS Sports this week, noting that team did not handle New Orleans and the lead-up to the Sugar Bowl with the right mindset. Lawrence and several others leaned hard into the "business trip" mentality, but no catchphrase can encompass the wisdom they have gained from playing at a national championship level for the entirety of their careers.
Editor's note: Lawrence is expected to be suspended from the Cotton Bowl after a postseason drug test administered by the NCAA flagged the presence of ostarine in his system.
3. Trevor Lawrence is in a position for his potential to be realized: One of the things that any coach will point to is the growth that younger players see during the time between the end of the regular season and the bowl game. Those 15 bowl practices, away from the week-by-week grind, provide opportunities to reset, get healthy and rebuild in an effort to provide peak performance in the postseason. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence's freshman year was a whirlwind, starting as the backup to Kelly Bryant before taking over the starting job just a few weeks into the season. For much of the year, Lawrence acted as a project manager for an offense that had already established itself as one of the best rushing offenses in the country.
While running back Travis Etienne racked up 1,400 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns while collecting ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors, Lawrence was able to pick his spots from a playmaking perspective. The best sign for Lawrence's development moving forward is that he rarely hurt his team -- his 24-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio was the best in the ACC -- which is rare when growing pains are almost expected with a true freshman.
So now that the base line of efficiency and limited mistakes has been established, we wait to see if the College Football Playoff is going to be a launching pad moment for Lawrence. He's the kind of quarterback who absolutely has national championship potential, and given the makeup of this year's team, it's not crazy to think that potential will be realized here in his first season.