College football insider Brett McMurphy saw a clear dividing line among the nation’s top teams when it came time to file his preseason AP Top 25 ballot.
There were three unquestionably elite programs. Then, after what he described as a “huge drop-off,” there were 12 to 15 other schools in a secondary group.
Clemson isn’t in the same tier as Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia, he said, and that’s why the Action Network insider had no problem ranking the Tigers No. 11 on his preseason ballot.
Accounting for all Associated Press poll results released Monday, Clemson came in at No. 4 with zero first-place votes behind No. 1 Alabama (54 first-place votes), No. 2 Ohio State (six) and No. 3 Georgia (three) for its seventh consecutive preseason top five ranking.
Of 63 media voters, McMurphy was one of three who placed Clemson outside of their top 10 teams in individual results compiled by CollegePollTracker.com.
“I ranked Clemson No. 11 in part because this is the first time since the Tigers’ run of double-digit victory seasons they are having to replace both coordinators,” McMurphy told The State via email Tuesday. “The loss of (Brent) Venables will be huge, and (Tony) Elliott had been OC the past seven years.
“My biggest question with Clemson: Was last year a fluke season (not winning the ACC) or perhaps is it that some other ACC teams are catching up to Clemson? I believe the ACC (at least a few teams) is catching up.”
Coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers rode a streak of six-straight ACC championships and six-straight College Football Playoff appearances into last season but started the year 4-3.
Clemson rebounded by winning six-straight games, including a Cheez-It Bowl victory over Iowa State that secured an 11th-consecutive winning season.
But failing to qualify for the ACC championship game and missing the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2014 made for a perceived down year nationally.
Clemson also had to replace two elite assistant coaches as former offensive coordinator Tony Elliott took the Virginia head coaching job and former defensive coordinator Brent Venables took the Oklahoma head coaching job.
Swinney made internal hires at both spots, promoting former quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter to offensive coordinator and former senior defensive analyst Wes Goodwin to defensive coordinator.
McMurphy said the unknowns surrounding those coordinator swaps, as well as Clemson’s offensive struggles with quarterback DJ Uiagalelei last season, played a role in his voting. He had two other ACC teams (No. 4 Miami and No. 9 N.C. State) ahead of Clemson on his ballot.
“Last season, Clemson had the second-worst offense in the ACC (359 yards per game),” McMurphy wrote. “That’s mind-boggling. Even if you exclude the Georgia game, Clemson still would have only ranked 10th in the ACC in offense.”
“As Clemson fans know as well as anyone, college football is so dependent on the quarterback position — and that’s another reason I don’t have Clemson in my top 10. Can DJ (Uiagalelei) improve from last year (9 TD, 10 INT)? We’ll see. If not, Clemson won’t win the ACC.”
Another voter, David Thompson, joked he “wasn’t trying to be this controversial” when he ranked Clemson No. 15 in his preseason ballot. At four spots below McMurphy, that ended up being the Tigers’ lowest rank among all 63 voters.
Thompson, who covers Duke and N.C. State for the USA Today Network, said in an email he was “super surprised how high (Clemson) got ranked. They had shaky QB play, they lost some defensive talent, they’re coming off a ‘down’ year and they lost important staff. I thought I had them in a good spot.”
Clemson was the No. 3 team in last season’s preseason poll but ended streaks of 57 consecutive weeks as a top five team, 97 weeks as a top 10 team and 107 weeks as a top 25 team midway through the 2021 season. The Tigers finished No. 14 in the final AP poll.
“When I look at Clemson at No. 4, I guess no one really knows what’s going to happen behind Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia, so it does make sense to rank perennial talent high,” Thompson said.
McMurphy also acknowledged that the turbulence of college football in 2022 played a role in his voting — and could render his Clemson preseason points moot.
“The good news is, despite all my reasoning, I could be wrong and Clemson may get back to the CFB Playoff,” he said.