Luke DeCock

It was going to be a blowout anyway, but CFP’s posturing made it a dangerous one

Trevor Lawrence got absolutely blown up by Stephen Griffin, coming from outside of Lawrence’s field of vision on a corner blitz, and the only thing to say was: Why?

Why on earth was the Clemson quarterback still in a game the Tigers led 35-0? Why were the Tigers going for it on 4th-and-5 from midfield in the final seconds of the second quarter?

There was only one reason for Lawrence or any of the Clemson starters to still be in a game N.C. State had no chance by then of winning. There was only one reason for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to go for it when a punt was the simple, safe, smart play.

It was clear from the first drive that N.C. State had no chance. If this were a boxing match, any competent ref would have stopped it. Instead, the blows continued until the bitter, ugly end, Clemson running plays on the goal line to score a touchdown with 11 seconds to go to put the cherry on top of a 55-10 win.

Blame the College Football Playoff for all of it. For putting Clemson’s stars in danger. For encouraging Swinney to run up the score on a game that was over long before Clemson’s left guard lined up at running back and scored a touchdown, although Swinney certainly didn’t need to send a linebacker out to kick the final extra point.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) is hit by N.C. State defensive end Deonte Holden (55) right after he completed his throw during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Clemson at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C. Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. Ethan Hyman

When the CFP selection committee inexplicably put Clemson fifth in its initial rankings, following the cynical example of the AP poll voters who have penalized the Tigers for not blowing out their opponents by enough, it put both Clemson and N.C. State in the crosshairs. Disrespecting Clemson may have made for good television -- which is really what the CFP committee cares about -- but it made for terrible football Saturday.

Never mind Clemson would have the inevitable opportunity to move up a minimum of two spots thanks to attrition above. The slap in the face was a message, that Clemson wasn’t passing the eye test, the only criteria the committee considers in what would have been a smoke-filled room a generation ago, picking and choosing evidence to back up its preconceptions instead of doing it the other way around. The only thing more embarrassing and craven than their faux objectivity is their abject cronyism.

Clemson had no choice, with its fate in the hands of these political hacks, but to deliver a message of its own Saturday night, running up the score on N.C. State on the marquee game of the day on national TV, even if it meant risking its chances at winning a national title.

The NCAA basketball selection committee bends over backward to use metrics that ignore or cap margin of victory, to its own detriment sometimes when it comes to picking the most deserving teams, in the interest of giving teams as little incentive as possible to run up the score. The CFP committee is openly encouraging it, and that’s just as bad for contenders like Clemson as it is for also-rans like N.C. State.

Clemson, by leaving Lawrence and tailback Travis Etienne and its other stars in as long as it did, risked losing players it will need when it inevitably makes the semifinals. And that’s no hyperbole: wide receiver Tee Higgins twice had players land on the back of his legs while blocking, the second time late in the first half long after he should have been rooting on the second or third string. Chase Brice finally replaced Lawrence late in the third quarter, long after he should have been given the keys.

And N.C. State, outmatched from the start and riddled with injuries, was spared any mercy on the part of a superior opponent, with predictable consequences. At one point, there were three Wolfpack players down injured on the same play. It was like the scene in “Platoon” when the violins of Barber’s Adagio swoon their mournful dirge.

This would have been a weak facsimile of an ACC game anyway, between two teams going in very different directions -- back to the ACC title game, in Clemson’s case -- but the less-than-divine intervention of the cabal that holds Clemson’s fate in its hands made it exponentially more of a mockery.

Bad for both teams. Bad for football.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.