FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – In the middle of this month, Clemson safety Jayron Kearse received messages from players he typically would consider rivals. He required no reinforcement of the importance of Clemson's College Football Playoff showdown against Oklahoma, the winner of which will play for the national title. Florida State players wanted him to remember another strain of motivation.
"They're telling me, 'Put on for the ACC,' things like that," Kearse said. "They did it one year. They went to the playoffs last year. Right now, we feel like we have the ACC on our back. We're going to try to carry it to the best of our abilities."
When the Orange Bowl kicks off Thursday, the foremost concern of No. 1 Clemson and No. 4 Oklahoma will be on their own upshot — their season ends, or they play for the big trophy. The playoff game also will offer a one-game referendum of the strength of the Big 12 and the ACC, perhaps the two most maligned conferences among the Power Five.
The rest of college football remains suspicious of the ACC, Florida State's national title two years ago notwithstanding, especially after Oregon drubbed the Seminoles in last season's playoff. The Big 12, the lone Power Five conference without a title game to showcase its best teams, did not send a team to the playoff last season and has the fourth seed, and therefore the last team to make the cut, this year. If Alabama beats Michigan State, it will leave either the ACC or the Big 12 as the lone conference that hasn't won a playoff game.
If you don't believe the playoff's impact on conference reputation, remember last year. Ohio State flipped the perception of the Big Ten, and the Buckeyes' sudden rise combined with the arrival of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan elevated the entire conference. The committee left out TCU and Baylor, the co-champions many believed would have been worthy. Oklahoma has the chance to suggest the Big 12 deserved representation last season and prove it shouldn't be passed over again.
"It really hurt us," Sooners defensive lineman Charles Tapper said. "There were two teams that should have been in it. They could definitely been in the playoffs and probably won the playoffs. If we go out there and we dominate, the Big12 would definitely take a big step up."
To be sure, not all the participants are as preoccupied by measuring conferences. "I definitely think a lot of guys in the … Big 12? Is it Big 12?" Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said. "Big Ten or Big 12, I get them confused. I definitely think a lot of guys in the Big 12 are happy to have Oklahoma represent them."
The College Football Playoff committee is not supposed to take prior seasons into account when it chooses the best four teams. As Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said, "Every year is a new year." But the committee is composed of humans, and humans are nothing if not a collection of biases. They can say the way conferences stack up in significant games will not leave an imprint on their selections. Perception, though, is hard to sandblast from a brain. The winner of this year's playoff games could well impact the composition of next year's bracket.
It also can affect recruiting classes. SEC coaches no longer can tell recruits that they won't play for national titles if they choose a Big Ten or ACC school — Ohio State and Florida State proved it false. The Big 12, meanwhile, has not won a national championship since Vince Young led Texas to the BCS title in 2005.
On Thursday, the Tigers and Sooners will add their own arguments to the ongoing conference warfare, whatever that means or doesn't.
"It's really just about Clemson and Oklahoma right now," Boulware said. "It is ACC versus Big 12. Whatever. We're focused on Clemson."