No. 2 Clemson

No more "Clemson" jokes, folks, that was so circa 1900-to-late-season 2015.

The joke to me now is how Clemson lost last year's national title game only because it got "out-tricked" by Alabama Coach Nick Saban.

Sorry, did not see that coming. It was like Ruth Bader Ginsburg getting you to slip on the banana peel she planted outside the Supreme Court men's room. [membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Rankman really thought Clemson was going to beat Alabama, but all it really did was hang tough and earn national respect, which might have been enough for some Tiger fans.

Damn you Nick Saban for calling that on-side kick, with the game tied at 24, in the fourth quarter. That "Slick Nick" maneuver turned the tide toward the Tide and allowed Alabama to escape a great game with a great victory.

Given that Clemson is returning quarterback Deshaun Watson, there is every reason to believe the Tigers would beat Alabama in a rematch this year. Yet, the pollsters still don't have it in them to start Clemson ahead of Tuscaloosa.

But that's Ok, we've seen the program transformation under Dabo Swinney. We were as guilty as anyone in waiting for Clemson to fall on its face just because it was Clemson. Swinney comes off as a cartoon-figure in television interviews and it's easy to poke fun at that, but his team is now as serious as The PBS News Hour.

What's not to like about this year's Tigers? They have to be the hungriest team in America, coming so close to winning it all. Watson is, without question, the best returning quarterback in college football. Clemson could not have picked a better time, or team, to take into an opening game at Auburn.

That's a tough-looking game, even though the superior team in this one hails from the ACC. Yet, Clemson will get all the credit in the world for defeating an Auburn team just because Auburn is in the SEC. Auburn in reality is a team coming off a crummy 7-6 season.

Clemson returns eight starters on offense, which includes the team leaders in passing (Watson), rushing (Wayne Gallman) and receiving (Artavis Scott).

Whatever issues there on defense, a unit that loses eight starters, we're expecting coordinator Brent Venables to solve. Last year, he lost nine starters on the No.1 defense and still managed to cobble together a defense that held together through 14 straight wins.

Most important, Clemson's schedule looks tougher than it really is. Auburn is not Auburn anymore and neither is Georgia Tech (ACC) or South Carolina (SEC), two periodic "name" programs who have fallen off the periodic table.

So it really comes down to two games--Louisville at home on Oct. 1, and at Florida State on Oct. 29. Clemson could even afford to lose one of those games, in the right way, and still make the playoff.

And that's no joke.

Rankman's countdown so far:No. 16 Boise State, No. 15 Washington,No. 14USC, No. 13UCLA, No. 12Stanford, No. 11 Oregon, No. 10 Ohio State, No. 9 Michigan State, No. 8 Tennessee, No. 7 Oklahoma, No. 6 Florida State, No. 5 LSU, No. 4 Michigan,No. 3 Alabama[/membership]

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