Clemson filled the No. 2 spot in the first College Football Playoff rankings of this season, but that doesn’t guarantee the Tigers a spot at the table once the bracket is finalized next month.
In order for that to happen, the ACC’s only remaining unbeaten needs to keep winning. The latest challenge came Saturday against Syracuse — the word “challenge” being used loosely.
Clemson demolished the Orange 54-0 in Death Valley. The win showed that the Tigers aren’t experiencing any sort of hangover following an emotional 37-34 victory over Florida State at home last weekend.
It also reinforced why they won’t lose in the regular season.
In a world where the program is in the midst of stringing together its sixth straight double-digit-win season, with “Clemsoning” now an antiquated term, Clemson simply doesn’t lose to lesser competition — certainly not to teams that are far worse.
After Saturday’s blowout, the Tigers have won 44 straight games against unranked foes. What’s left on the schedule? Three teams outside the Top 25.
The ability to win so consistently despite having a target on their backs is the result of constant focus instilled by the coaching staff.
“We bust our tail Monday all the way to Saturday morning,” linebacker Ben Boulware told reporters after the Syracuse game. “There’s so much preparation that goes into it, stuff that people don’t know about. We have a really good team.”
While Clemson’s record is perfect, that doesn’t mean the team is. Its incredible run against unranked competition was in jeopardy against Troy on Sept. 10 (ultimately a 30-24 win) and was nearly snapped against N.C. State on Oct. 15 (a 24-17 overtime thriller).
Although there have been days where the Tigers’ run has been threatened, Saturday wasn’t one of those days.
Deshaun Watson was 13-of-16 for 169 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, also contributing 39 rushing yards along the way. He got out of the game early enough for backup Nick Schuessler to attempt 17 passes, completing 11 of them for 177 yards and two scores.
Receivers Mike Williams and Deon Cain had field days. Williams turned in a six-catch, 106-yard performance and found the end zone once. Cain hauled in five balls for 125 yards, hitting paydirt twice.
Then, of course, there was the defense. Syracuse’s potent, fast-paced attack managed only 277 yards. Clemson kept dynamic receiver Amba Etta-Tawo in check (relatively speaking), holding him to nine receptions for 84 yards and no touchdowns.
It wasn’t about Clemson beating Syracuse — that was expected. What stood out was the way the Tigers beat the Orange. Dabo Swinney’s group is showing signs of a team that isn’t getting distracted from the task at hand: getting back to the national championship game.
Clemson will finish the regular season with a road game at Wake Forest sandwiched between two home contests against Pitt and South Carolina. Each of those teams has at least three losses, and none is expected to defeat the Tigers.
That’s excellent news for Clemson; Saturday was the latest example of the notion that when the Tigers are expected to win, they usually do.