We Simulated 5 CFB Seasons – With Clemson in the SEC

Last week we ran one of our most popular articles we’ve ever published on this site, simulating Clemson’s 2019 season with LSU’s schedule. One of the main responses we got to the simulation was that Clemson would be very good in the SEC, but the difficulty in becoming and staying the standard is extremely difficult, much more so than in the ACC. That much is evidently very true; beyond Alabama’s three-peat from 2014-2016, no SEC team has repeated as conference champion since Tennessee in ‘97-98. Clemson’s current five-year reign atop the ACC has not been matched by a SEC program since Alabama won eight of nine titles in the 1970s, including five straight from 1971-1975. So the question has to be asked: how would Clemson do in an extended stay in the SEC? As pointed out by certain readers, it’s impossible to completely mimic this situation, as it’s hard to tell if Clemson gets the same recruits, or even builds to their current powerhouse status if they had been playing in the SEC all along, but we are doing our best to simulate how Clemson would fare, if they played their past five seasons in the SEC. 

Now to do this, we decided to replace one SEC team with Clemson, so we utilized a process to decide on which team to choose. To fully mimic the SEC experience, we wanted Clemson to replace a truly middle-of-the road team. Replacing Alabama would take away from the brutally difficult SEC experience, but choosing Arkansas or Vanderbilt unfairly takes away the cupcake conference games that every SEC team gets each year. So we came up with three qualifications for selection our team:
1. No Division Titles in the past five years
2. No last-place finishes in the division in the last five years
3. Did not play Clemson in the last five years

This brought us down to two teams – Mississippi State and Kentucky. We chose Kentucky, simply because Kentucky is in the SEC East, which is where Clemson would likely reside if they actually played in the SEC. Also, the SEC West has a clear top three in Auburn, LSU, and ‘Bama, so adding Clemson to the East gives the conference some more balance. Other than Clemson replacing Kentucky’s games, all other SEC results from each season will hold in order to see where Clemson supposedly would have finished. Alright, enough setup and talk – let’s run the simulation and see how Clemson fares. 

2015
Vs. Louisiana  W 43-24    
@ South Carolina   W 28-21 
Vs. Florida       W 24-10                      
Vs. Missouri    W 27-9   
Vs. Eastern Kentucky W (FCS)
Vs. Auburn       L 24-21              
@ Mississippi State L 40-34
Vs. Tennessee  W 33-24
@ Georgia W 23-17
@ Vanderbilt W 30-10
Vs. Charlotte  W 47-3
Vs. Louisville   W 27-21

SEC Championship
Vs. Alabama L 37-17

Overall, not a bad first year in the SEC for Clemson, as they put up a 10-2 regular season, before getting dismantled by the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship. Beating Florida in Death Valley cements the Tigers’ spot as SEC East champions, but back to back losses to Auburn and Mississippi State kill any CFP hopes. This season probably is good enough for a NY6 bowl game. Solid start, but Clemson has bigger goals moving forward. 

If you’re curious…
We simulated the 2015 CFP with the new field. A 2-loss Clemson team wasn’t a contender, so we bumped all other teams up a notch, bringing Iowa into the field as the #4 seed. We simulated the games the same ways (3 simulations per contest). Stunningly, the Hawkeyes ground and pound style was enough to squeak past the Crimson Tide monster, winning 27-24. Meanwhile, Michigan State didn’t have better luck with a new opponent, losing 40-21. In a bizarre Oklahoma-Iowa title game, Baker Mayfield got his national title, toppling the Hawkeyes 31-20.

2016
Vs. Southern Mississippi W 23-21
@ Florida   W 24-20
Vs. New Mexico State W 41-24
Vs. South Carolina W 37-27
@ Alabama L 41-21
Vs. Vanderbilt  W 33-24
Vs. Mississippi State W 33-23
@ Missouri L 37-20
Vs. Georgia W 37-14
@ Tennessee W 31-24
Vs. Austin Peay W (FCS)
@ Louisville W 34-24 

SEC Championship
Vs. Alabama L 28-20

Clemson won the national championship in 2016, but the SEC grind derails their season in this simulation. A 4-0 start is undone by a trip to Tuscalossa, and Clemson overlooks Missouri, ruining their Playoff hopes. A 10-2 (6-2) record is enough for another SEC Championship appearance, and although they give Alabama more of a game, the Tigers still fall short. It’s another 10-3 season in the SEC East for Clemson, and we’re on to Year 3. 

If you’re curious
With no Clemson in the playoff, it opened the door for our first ever two-loss team in the Playoff, as Penn State earned a match-up with Bama, and Ohio State takes on Washington in the other semifinal. Both games were close, but Alabama and Ohio State emerged victorious into a clash of traditional powerhouses. Alabama had no issues with the Buckeyes, as with no Deshaun Watson in the way, the Tide rolled, 33-17.

2017
@ Southern Miss W 40-20
Vs.  Eastern Kentucky W (FCS)
@ South Carolina W 31-14
Vs. Florida W 34-17
Vs. Eastern Michigan W 35-14
Vs. Missouri W 28-27
@ Mississippi State W 17-12
Vs. Tennessee W 33-14
Vs. Ole Miss W 28-23
@ Vanderbilt W 31-9
@ Georgia L 30-7
Vs. Louisville W 27-17 

A near perfect campaign from Clemson was derailed at the last minute by a trip to Sanford Stadium, where they were tripped up by the Georgia Bulldogs. The loss was a crushing one, as their 7-1 conference mark tied with Georgia, and Kirby Smart’s squad advanced to the SEC Championship on head-to-head tiebreaker. With Georgia and Alabama already in, there’s no chance the CFP committee puts three SEC teams in, so they’d probably go ahead and put the 2-loss Ohio State Buckeyes in the CFP instead. As far as SEC slates go, this was a pretty light one for Clemson, but we’re into the Trevor Lawrence era, with two more chances for the Tigers to make a run. 

If you’re curious…

The biggest benefactor of Clemson’s presence in the SEC may have been Baker Mayfield and the Sooners. Oklahoma became the top seed in the 2017 CFP, squeaking past Ohio State 37-35. Georgia held of an Alabama comeback in the semifinals, but the Sooners edged the Bulldogs for the title.

2018
Vs. Central Michigan W 59-0
@ Florida W 30-24
Vs. Murray State W (FCS)
Vs. Mississippi State W 33-21
Vs. South Carolina W 42-20
@ Texas A&M W 34-31 OT 
Vs. Vanderbilt W 61-13
@ Missouri W 37-23
Vs. Georgia W 43-20
@ Tennessee W 52-21
Vs. Middle Tennessee W 56-10
@ Louisville W 44-20
SEC Championship
Vs. Alabama W 35-31 

That 2018 team may really be one of the best ever. The SEC didn’t stop them in any way. Texas A&M pushed Clemson to overtime, but Georgia couldn’t hold a candle to the Tigers’ dominance, and Clemson capped it off with their first SEC title in Year 4 of our 5-year simulation. It’s time to head to the College Football Playoff. A 1-loss SEC champion is still in it, so we’ve made Alabama the 3 seed in this CFP, as Clemson jumps to #1. Unbeaten Notre Dame slots in at #2, and Oklahoma, per usual, rounds out the field at #4.
College Football Playoff

Clemson vs. Oklahoma L 42-41
And Clemson’s 2018 championship comes to a screeching halt! In my opinion, this goes to prove the genius of Nick Saban. He gameplanned just enough in 2018 to keep Kyler Murray at bay for a quarter and build a huge lead. Dabo couldn’t do that here, and the Heisman winner did what he did all year: put up points. That Oklahoma team was a lot better than people think, and Clemson just couldn’t quite keep up the steam after their undefeated SEC campaign. 

If you’re curious…

I went ahead and simulated the rest of the CFP…same rules – 3 simulations for each game to determine the result. Alabama defeated Notre Dame 38-28, setting up a Tua-Kyler rematch in the national championship. The simulation was an absolute classic, with two of the three games going to multiple overtimes, with each team scoring over 40 points in every game. Ultimately Tua picks up another natty, taking down the Sooners 59-56 (OT).

2019
Vs. Toledo W 49-10
Vs. Eastern Michigan W 49-13
Vs. Florida W 40-31
@ Mississippi State W 42-20
@ South Carolina W 37-27
Vs. Arkansas W 55-14
@ Georgia L 30-27
Vs. Missouri W 38-24
Vs. Tennessee W 41-17
@ Vanderbilt W 56-13
Vs. UT Martin W (FCS)
Vs. Louisville W 52-6 


Another great season for Clemson, but a heartbreaker at Sanford Stadium ends their campaign for another berth in the SEC Championship. However, the story isn’t ending there. Remember, LSU and Ohio State still finished the year undefeated, and Oklahoma was a 1-loss Big 12 champion, but there was nobody else with zero or one losses. So Clemson sneaks into the back door, and we are back in the CFP. LSU stays at #1, Ohio State and Oklahoma climb to 2 and 3, and Clemson checks in at #4. Trevor Lawrence vs. Joe Burrow once more – virtual edition. 

The College Football Playoff
LSU vs. Clemson L 33-28

It was closer this time around. Far more battle-tested than in their actual season, Clemson was more prepared for Burrow and the LSU offense, but the Tigers still emerged victorious, and Clemson head home. 

If you’re curious
Nobody stopped LSU.
Ohio State handled Oklahoma 35-24, setting up the Ohio State vs. LSU national title contest most everyone wanted to see. LSU had no issues with the Buckeyes either, manhandling the undefeated Big 10 champions 41-17 in a game that was never close. So there’s that question answered as well – nobody could beat Burrow and the Tigahs. 

Summary

SEC Record: 34-6
Regular Season Record: 54-6
SEC Championship Record: 1-2
CFP Record: 0-2

In reality, Clemson has gone 58-2 in the past five regular seasons in the ACC, going 5-0 in ACC Championship games and 6-3 in the CFP. Undoubtedly, five years in the SEC would have made it far tougher to attain this standing, and in this simulation, the Tigers are unable to bring home a national championship. There’s something to be said for reaching the CFP after the grind of an SEC season – even Clemson’s 2018 team didn’t have enough to reach the finish line. In the end, it can be concluded (to whatever degree you want to trust this simulation) that Clemson is undoubtedly an elite program – their 34-6 mark in SEC games over the past five seasons would have been second behind Alabama (36-4) in those years, making it clear that Clemson belongs near the top of the rankings every season. No they might not cruise like they do in the ACC, but stop spinning the “Clemson is a mediocre team in a bad conference” crap. It’s an overused mantra preached by the SEC that’s old and incorrect.

Also, let’s say thank you that this never happened. Can you imagine the absolutely ridiculous number of Baker Mayfield endorsements we’d have to see if he was a two-time national champion as well? Makes me shiver just thinking about it.

What simulation should we do next? Let us know your thoughts on this one at collegetalking@gmail.com

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