The South Carolina Gamecocks made their debut in the College Football Playoff rankings last night, checking in at No. 24.
On one hand, this is kind of cool! South Carolina hit rock bottom the same year the playoff system started, so the Gamecocks haven’t landed in rankings of any kind since 2014 — much less the official playoff poll. For some fans, this is probably a nice validation of how the program has been progressively digging itself out of its post-Spurrier hole. Will Muschamp has been doing a nice job while largely flying under the radar, so there’s nothing wrong with a little recognition.
On the other hand, this is kind of weird! More than a few folks — both nationally and locally — are raising their eyebrows at the sudden inclusion of the Gamecocks, and the media polls have left South Carolina unranked. What was it about the win over Wofford that catapulted the Gamecocks into the Top 25? Yes, South Carolina is an 8-win team that finished second in a Power 5 division, but the SEC East is not exactly a murderer’s row. South Carolina’s best win this season is probably N.C. State, which is now unranked after an unfortunate (yet vintage) flop against Wake Forest. The Gamecocks’ second best win might be a resurgent Missouri team, which is playing competent football again but is still just 6-5, and...well, I guess you could throw the Terriers in there, since they’re 9-2 and bound for the FCS playoffs. But to say South Carolina’s body of work is worthy of Top 25 inclusion is a stretch, even if you’re just talking No. 24.
This is where conspiracy theories take center stage, largely due to the presence of Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich on the College Football Playoff selection committee (which in itself could be a whole other topic of discussion). Given that South Carolina plays the Tigers this week, and given that the Tigers have an embarrassing blemish on their record with a loss to Syracuse, this provides Clemson another opportunity to pad its playoff resume with a win over a ranked team. If South Carolina had been ranked a couple weeks ago, there would still be confusion and quibbling among observers, but the timing here is what carries an air of suspicion.
Of course, others would point out that the upcoming ACC Championship showdown between No. 3 Clemson and No. 2 Miami is a de facto elimination game for the playoffs. It’s very unlikely the committee would take both the winner and the loser, so even if Clemson beats South Carolina, the Tigers are out regardless if they fall to the Hurricanes. I suppose one could then argue the committee might be looking for a backup plan to get both teams in, but I think that’s a reach — especially with undefeated Wisconsin lurking just outside of the top four.
In any event, there’s only one way the Gamecocks can make sure Clemson doesn’t put another feather in its cap, and that’s to beat the Tigers on Saturday.