No one has come out and admitted that the looming specter of a "Clemsoning"—the most misinterpreted phrase in college football—is the reason Oklahoma is comfortably favored to hand top-ranked Clemson its first loss of the season in Thursday's College Football Playoff semifinal. After all, it would be rather silly to believe that the country's best regular season team and the only undefeated squad in the playoff field—one that's quarterbacked by a Heisman finalist—will be one-and-done simply because of a term that even its most prominent early adopters insist is now obsolete.
There are plenty of logical reasons to believe that the No. 4 seed Sooners can upset the Tigers. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is once again brandishing his Big Game Bob moniker without irony. He'll be the best tactician Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has encountered all season. Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield does Johnny Manziel better than anyone has since Manziel was banished to Cleveland, and no team in America boasts a running-back tandem better than Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Oklahoma has supporting stars at wide receiver (Sterling Shepard), defensive line (Charles Tapper), and linebacker (Eric Striker), as well as in the secondary (Zack Sanchez). The school's offense and defense each rank in the top 30 nationally in total yardage.
On the other hand, this is an Oklahoma team whose only loss came against the Fallout-esque dystopia masquerading as major college football program that is Texas. The Sooners' resume for playoff inclusion leans heavily on an impressive season-ending sweep of Oklahoma State, TCU, and Baylor—a run that becomes less impressive when you remember that all three schools played backup quarterbacks. Unlike Clemson, Oklahoma has demonstrated that it can play very badly; also unlike Clemson, the Sooners haven't provided any moments of actual greatness.
So Oklahoma could win—only everyone seems to think the Sooners should win. And that brings us back to one particular made-up word.
Clemsoning entered the national college football lexicon in 2007, when Ty Hildebrandt and Dan Rubenstein referenced it on their podcast, The Solid Verbal. While Hildebrandt is careful to point out that The Solid Verbal didn't invent the term, he was the one responsible for codifying its definition into that great bastion of 21st-century language, Urban Dictionary: "The act of delivering an inexplicably disappointing performance, usually within the context of a college football season."
In theory, that definition is vague enough to describe any school's heartbreak, but in practice, Hildebrandt says, "the essence of Clemsoning is hype combined with an inexplicable loss."
It's a different twinge of pain than Coug'd It, in which Washington State dissolves during a crucial fourth quarter. It's far more devastating than the annual USC pratfall, which is now so expected that it long ago lost most of its shock value. Clemsoning's spiritual home is Death Valley, but it can happen to anyone: the game Hildebrandt selected as his example on Urban Dictionary was Oklahoma State's 2011 meltdown against Iowa State, in which the Cyclones dropped the second-ranked and undefeated Cowboys in double overtime.
"They had a lot on the line, built up a lot of hype, and lost a game for no apparent reason," Hildebrandt says. "That's a prototypical Clemsoning and it doesn't even relate to Clemson."
Naturally, Hildebrandt says, "Clemson fans detested [the term] with all their might, and rightfully so." But the Tigers, more than any other team, have been Clemsoning through the end of the previous decade and into the first half of this one, perhaps never harder than a 37-13 drubbing by a five-loss North Carolina State team in 2011, which plunged the Tigers from No. 7 in the country to three losses in their last four games.
"A shock to the system," Hildebrandt says. "Since then, there really haven't been that many inexplicable losses. They've lost to Florida State, South Carolina, but for most part those teams were ranked and weren't bad losses."
Heading into 2015, Hildebrandt and Rubenstein decided that it was time to usher the term into retirement. They both were high on Clemson, and the school's only foreseeable losses were to the likes of FSU or Notre Dame, games that could gut the Tigers' playoff hopes but also would qualify as reasonable defeats.
Sure enough, The Solid Verbal's use of Clemsoning waned exactly as everyone else's ratcheted up. Clemson was the storyline of the 2015 season, and thus "Clemsoning" became the national college football media's new hot word. ESPN read the Urban Dictionary definition aloud on its broadcasts; newspapers up and down the East Coast wriggled the term into their coverage. It eventually became ubiquitous enough that Swinney himself addressed the topic, declaring it to be "bull crap" and chiding everyone for using it when the Tigers hadn't lost to an unranked team since that NC State game.
Speaking of bull crap: the use of Clemsoning that rose to prominence in 2015 is far removed from the term's original meaning, the one that Swinney correctly denounced.
"It got to the point that any time Clemson is on the verge of losing any game, people start using that Clemsoning term incorrectly," Hildebrandt says. "They come back to you and say 'Clemsoning alert'… 'It's a Clemsoning,' even though that was never the original intent."
Strictly speaking, Hildebrandt says, there is no way for the Tigers to pull off a Clemsoning against the Sooners. The Sooners are too good; the Tigers have proved too much. "It would require them to lose by about 50 points for us even have that conversation," he says. "And truthfully, the kind of year Clemson has had, it wouldn't be fair to use it in that capacity."
Yet the national audience understands the term crudely, as something applicable to any sort Clemson loss in a pressure situation. Thursday's semifinal represents an airlock, and the narrative logic is clear: Big Game Bob versus Clemsoning, in the most significant game in Clemson history, can only mean one thing.
Hardly anyone will openly cop to it, of course, and Hildebrandt says that he's heard surprisingly little pregame talk of Clemsoning even as the point spread has steadily climbed from one point to as many as four in OU's favor. Yet, he adds, "I will say this: if Clemson does lose, if they are on the verge of losing or if they get completely blown out, you're really going to hear it."
Should that happen, don't expect The Solid Verbal to follow suit. They're keeping the term they made famous on ice, although Hildebrandt won't rule out a comeback should the Tigers mail in next year's Wake Forest game.
"We can bring it out of retirement," he says. "Like a Michael Jordan situation."