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Is Clemson the Best Team Ever?

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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It's complicated.

Though the hypotheticals are intriguing, I, innately, don't like comparisons. Something about the thought of what-could-be devalues the significance of what-actually-is. In the case of Clemson's recent national championship, no framework is needed; the Tigers are the first FBS team to go 15-0, convincingly dethroning the king along the way. Their season, one of great awe and splendor, is now part of college football's constellation. In today's spotlight, however, yesterday follows like a shadow. Even if we don't want to, parallels have to be drawn.

Before discussing what Clemson might, in fact, be, we must first define what, exactly, we are considering. To me, there is a palpable difference in the two titles "greatest" and "best". One comes with context and scope, while the other is more visceral, measuring peak performance and potential. Not mutually exclusive, but not always intertwined, the marks can be as different as a GOAT and a BOAT; both are clearly most effective in the right setting.

Obviously, Clemson deserves to be in the discussion. The Tigers outscored opponents by an average of 44.3 to 13.1, the widest gap of the College Football Playoff era. Clemson, facing two undefeated superpowers in the field, defeated Notre Dame and Alabama by a combined total of 74-19, the 55-point difference standing as the largest final four margin for any champion to date. The Tigers handed Florida State its worst home loss ever, went 3-0 against the SEC, topped six foes that won at least nine games and, after September, won by an average of 36.1 points per outing and weren't played within 20 points one single time.

In the all-time history of college football, only two national champions have finished the season by winning their last ten games by at least 20 points, 2018 Clemson and 1901 Michigan; 1917 Georgia Tech did so going 9-0.

Five Tigers, Travis Etienne, Clelin Ferrell, Mitch Hyatt, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, earned All-American honors for Clemson, a group not including record-setting true freshmen superstars Trevor Lawrence and Justyn Ross. With Urban Meyer's retirement, Dabo Swinney joins Nick Saban as the only current coaches with multiple national championships. Swinney beat Saban head-to-head for both of his.    

What's not to like? The Tigers ranked third nationally in total offense, fifth in total defense, had the most sacks in the country, were sixth in third down defense, fourth in redzone defense, sixth in redzone touchdown percentage, had the most plays of 40 yards or more in the game and allowed the fewest first downs in all of Power Five football. Clemson had a quarterback with 3,200 yards and 30 touchdowns, a running back with 1,600 yards and 24 scores, a 1,000-yard receiver, another wideout with double digit touchdown receptions and four players with at least ten tackles for loss.

Perhaps most impressively, these Tigers overwhelmed the defending national champions on the big stage. The last title game victory larger than Clemson's 28-point triumph over Alabama was Southern Cal's 55-19 win over Oklahoma back on January 4th, 2005. The Tigers, stunningly, scored 30 unanswered points against the Crimson Tide from the early second quarter on. Clemson did not turn the ball over, was called for one penalty and went 10-of-15 on third downs in handing Nick Saban the worst loss of his Alabama tenure. 

A.J. Terrell promptly intercepted Tua Tagovailoa and returned the pick 44 yards for a touchdown on the Crimson Tide's second play of the night. An early statement was made, then sustained. Remarkably, the Tigers stood tall in the game's defining moments. Clemson, facing college football's modern-day dynasty in Alabama, was the more aggressive, athletic, clutch, composed, dynamic, effective, efficient, physical, prepared, productive and well-coached team. 

The fact that the Tigers dominated Saban's Crimson Tide with a true freshman quarterback, a true freshman number one receiver and without an All-American future first round pick on the defensive line only adds to this team's lore.

So what is that legacy? I feel obligated to at least try to find some perspective. First, let's establish what we do know: no national champion in roughly 100 years has ended the season on a hotter extended streak; no team has dominated the College Football Playoff like Clemson just did; no team, since Wilbur and Orville Wright took flight at Kitty Hawk, has gone 15-0 at the game's highest level. All of that must be worth more than a trophy. The Tigers have earned their own place in history.

Trying to narrow a number of all-time teams down to one that stands out above the rest is a truly impossible task. It's beyond complicated. Eras are different, schedules are different and the human mind has always been bias in evaluation. For whatever it's worth, I think I am comfortable calling this Clemson team the "greatest of all time". I can't say that with unequivocal, indisputable resolve, but I can, at least, say it. While I do consider others, am open to arguments and have plenty of hesitation, I don't feel like I'm being disingenuous in nodding my head.

The comprehensive nature of what the Tigers have done, how they did it and, at the end, who they did it against, has them in the conversation at a minimum.

I don't think I can call this Clemson team the "best of all time" and that's just my immediate sensory reaction. Perhaps time will change my opinion, perhaps not. After the Tigers' win over Alabama, I spent some time thinking back over squads that I consider to fit that mold; I tried, probably unsuccessfully, to contrast resumes. I looked at stats, watched some highlights and even talked about this on the radio with Miami legend Clinton Portis. Ultimately, I do think there are a few teams from this generation I might slide slightly ahead of '18 Clemson on this list; 1995 Nebraska, 2001 Miami, 2008 Florida, 2009 Alabama, 2013 Florida State.   

Trying to rank-and-file the aforementioned is an endlessly-frustrating and emotionally-draining exercise. I'm not so sure there is a "right answer". In review, I honestly don't feel qualified for such an incredible responsibility. It may be fun to think about who the "greatest" and "best" teams are, but it almost feels disrespectful to act on it.

Encapsulate Clemson's run as you may, as the Tigers probably are worthy of multiple distinctions. That said, one thing is certain; as college football debates their place, you can't tell the story of the game without it.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports