Why undefeated Clemson looks like a pretender

Seven weeks into the season, Clemson finds itself in an enviable position: Undefeated and all alone atop the ACC Atlantic, having already defeated Louisville and Heisman Trophy favorite quarterback Lamar Jackson, it’s most dangerous threat.

All should be well in Death Valley, except it isn’t unless you have Tigers blinders on.

Clemson is hardly recognizable from the group that nearly stunned Alabama in the national title game last year, the team that won just four games by a single score during the regular season.

Despite posting better numbers of late, junior quarterback Deshaun Watson doesn’t look like the same player who took the sport by storm last year. The defense is softer, struggling to hold leads. They have an even turnover margin, mostly because of Watson’s eight interceptions. The running game, so effective last year, has been stagnant, producing only 169.4 yards per game.

Clemson looks eerily similar to the 2014 version of Florida State and the 2015 Ohio State model, talented teams coming off national titles that got by on talent and championship muscle memory. Florida State reached the College Football Playoff before it was badly exposed by Oregon. Ohio State didn’t even get there, knocked off in its second to last game by Michigan State, a vastly inferior outfit.

The college football world kept waiting for those teams to turn it on, kept ignoring the sloppy and underwhelming performances, the last-minute escapes. We’re watching history repeat itself with Clemson.

The Tigers are only still in the playoff picture because N.C. State kicker Kyle Bambard choked a 33-yard field goal in the final seconds Saturday, and Clemson prevailed in overtime at home against the mediocre-at-best Wolfpack. They struggled to knock off also-ran Auburn and mid-major Troy, beating both of them by just six points apiece. Had Louisville not started with so much jitters, digging itself an early 28-10 hole, the final result there may have been different.

Look, maybe Clemson wakes up, maybe Watson starts to perform as he did last year, maybe the defense begins to dominate, maybe the Tigers start to take care of the football. It’s not impossible. But through seven weeks, Clemson doesn’t look like a championship team, let alone one that belongs in the playoffs. It looks more like that Florida State team, that Ohio State team, teams we kept waiting for, teams that never showed up.

Ex-Cuse me?

They’re usually counting down to the first opening tip-off in Syracuse by now. Instead, on Saturday there was a massive celebration in Central New York, the Orange’s first victory over a ranked opponent since 2012, a 31-17 victory over No. 17 Virginia Tech.

The hiring of Dino Babers in December didn’t make much noise — he wasn’t athletic directors Mark Coyle’s first choice — but the former Bowling Green head coach has quickly shown his coaching chops, particularly on offense, where Syracuse is averaging 26.7 points per game and 346.1 passing yards, the ninth-most in the nation. Babers’ offense, led by impressive sophomore quarterback Eric Dungey, rolled up 561 yards of offense against the Hokies, which owns the third-best defense in the country.

Syracuse is only 3-4 overall and 1-2 in the ACC, but Babers has the Orange competing in the ACC, which wasn’t always the case the last two years, when they were a combined 7-17 under Scott Shafer.

Washington State quarterback Luke FalkPhoto: AP

Washington State-ment

The Evergreen State isn’t just about the undefeated Huskies. Washington State, led by a prolific offense averaging 40.0 points per game, has defeated traditional Pac-12 powers UCLA, Stanford and Oregon in recent weeks, and is tied atop the North division with playoff contender Washington. The annual Apple Cup, on the final weekend of the season, may never have meant so much. The last time one of the two schools won the league was Washington State in 2002.

The Post’s top 10

1. Alabama (7-0) (Last week: 1)

Maybe it’s time to spot the rest of the SEC some points or take a few scholarships away from Alabama, which treated SEC East contender Tennessee like a JV squad in a 49-10 thumping. Right now, it doesn’t seem fair.

2. Ohio State (6-0) (2)

These aren’t last year’s ultra-talented, yet soft Buckeyes. They showed their mettle Saturday night, rallying from two scores down in the second half to take down dogged Wisconsin in enemy territory.

3. Michigan (6-0) (3)

They each have five games left, plenty of chances to slip up, but Nov. 26, when Michigan visits Ohio State, looks like it will have the highest of stakes.

4. Washington (6-0) (5)

The Huskies have been so dominant, they have almost an identical point differential to mighty Alabama, out-scoring opponents 297-85, compared to 318-105 for the Crimson Tide.

Kyle Bambard misses a last-second field goal against Clemson.Photo: Getty Images

5. Clemson (7-0) (4)

If the Tigers end up winning the national championship, N.C. State kicker Kyle Bambard should get a ring. If not for his missed 33-yard field goal at the end of regulation on Saturday, Clemson’s playoff hopes would be on life support.

6. Louisville (5-1) (6)

Underwhelming victories like Friday’s 24-14 win over ACC Coastal cellar-dweller Duke isn’t going to get the Cardinals into the playoff. They need the style points.

7. Texas A&M (6-0) (8)

A year ago at this time, the Aggies were undefeated, before an ugly loss to Alabama started a skid of three loses in four games. The rematch this Saturday is more than revenge, it’s a chance for unheralded Texas A&M to proclaim itself as a title contender.

8. Wisconsin (4-2) (9)

Sure, they have two losses, but those losses are by a combined 14 points to Michigan and Ohio State. The smart money in the Big Ten West remains with the Badgers.

9. Nebraska (6-0) (9)

Nebraska is all alone atop the Big Ten West, but that’s the result of a fortunate schedule the Cornhuskers have struggled against.

10. Baylor (6-0) (10)

The undefeated record looks impressive at first glance, but just remember the Bears’ five FBS opponents are a combined 8-23.

New: None
Dropped out: None

Heisman Watch (in alphabetical order)

J.T. BarrettPhoto: Getty Images

QB J.T. Barrett, Ohio State

This was a Heisman moment, down two scores on the road against an elite defense. Barrett responded, accounting for three straight touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ impressive 30-23 overtime victory over Wisconsin.

QB Jake Browning, Washington

A true sophomore, he has thrown 23 touchdowns, the second most in the nation, but even more impressive is he has just two interceptions and a 72.2 completion percentage.

QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville

Jackson is the first ACC player to throw for 15 touchdowns and run for 15 more — and he has six regular season games left to add to his record.

CB/S/LB Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

A defensive player hasn’t won the Heisman since Charles Woodson in 1997, but Peppers isn’t just any defensive player — he’s Michigan’s swiss army knife, and he has scored two offensive touchdowns this year as well.

QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson

That’s three straight games with at least three touchdowns for the junior, who looks to be over his early struggles.

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