For the second straight year Clemson came off a bye week with a chance to upset a marquee opponent and join the early College Football Playoff conversation.
The opportunity was squandered a year ago with a 23-17 loss in overtime to No. 1-ranked Florida State playing without suspended quarterback Jameis Winston. But 378 days later, the Tigers capitalized with a 24-22 upset of Notre Dame.
The result flip-flopped Irish and Clemson in the AP Top 25 poll. The Tigers (4-0, 1-0 ACC Atlantic) climbed from No. 12 to No. 6 this week. Notre Dame (4-1) fell from No. 6 to No. 15.
Yes, Clemson and Tigers coach Dabo Swinney have thrust themselves into the four-team CFP speculation.
If Clemson keeps this up, beating Notre Dame will be the difference between the 2015 Tigers and the SOS – Same old Swinney. Clemson navigated the storm of criticism – not to mention rain from Hurricane Joaquim off the Atlantic coast. The Tigers and their 82,415 fans at Memorial Stadium were singing in the rain.
“That was the challenge,” said Clemson running back Wayne Gallman, who ran for 98 yards on 22 carries. “All the critics said we can’t do this, we can’t do that. We proved it and we have more to prove, so we aren’t done.”
Clemson (4-0, 1-0 ACC Atlantic) and Florida State (4-0, 2-0 ACC Atlantic) are the ACC’s only remaining unbeaten teams, but Clemson is the only conference member capable of joining the CFP conversation. It’s only a matter of time for the Seminoles’ 26-game ACC winning streak dating to the 2012 season to come to an end.
Florida State doesn’t have a consistent quarterback.
True sophomore Deshaun Watson didn’t put up special numbers in the bad weather, but he made decisive plays. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder from Gainesville, Ga., ran 16 times for 93 yards and one touchdown on a 21-yard run for a 21-3 lead early in the third quarter. He completed 11 of 22 passes for 97 yards with touchdowns passes of 6 yards for a 7-0 lead and 13 yards for a 14-0 advantage.
He did throw a costly interception in the end zone in the final minute of the third quarter that sparked Notre Dame’s fourth period comeback. But after the ensuing kickoff, he drove the Tigers 50 yards in six plays for what turning out to be the game-winning points, a 35-yard field goal with 10:56 left in the game.
Overall, Clemson took better care of the ball, winning the turnover battle 4-1. Notre Dame fumbled six times and lost three and Irish quarterback Deshone Kizer was intercepted once. Clemson fumbled once but didn’t lose the ball.
Now Clemson faces the challenge of a Notre Dame hangover and overlooking a Georgia Tech team that has surprisingly lost three straight to fall to 2-3 overall and 0-2 in the ACC Coastal. But the Yellow Jackets, who were ranked as high as No. 14, have a winning tradition to capitalize on a sleeping team.
Swinney, showing his growth as a eighth-year head coach, pumped a cautionary message into his players’ minds Saturday night.
“We’re going to enjoy it tonight and get back to ACC play next week against Georgia Tech,” he said. “They’re the biggest game of the year, and we’ve got a long way to go. We’ll start that process (Sunday).”
Clemson made plenty of mistakes to help Notre Dame to rally with a 19-point fourth quarter, but that has a lot to do with the parity in college football. None of the Top 25 teams, from Ohio State on down, have been immune from scares or upsets.
Take, UCLA. A week ago the Bruins embarrassed No. 16-ranked Arizona 56-20 on the road. A week later UCLA returned home and lost to unranked Arizona State 38-23. The Bruins dropped from No. 7 to No. 20.
After Clemson’s trap game with Georgia Tech, the Tigers face, in order, Boston College, Miami, North Carolina State, Florida State, Syracuse and Wake Forest and South Carolina.
It’s still a long road, but the Tigers responded with maturity. Notre Dame had scored on Kizer’s touchdown pass with six seconds to play and lined up for a two-point conversion to tie the score.
Kizer took the snap and rolled down the right side of the line looking for a hole to the end zone. The big Irish offensive linemen zone blocked, sliding the Clemson defenders to the right and out of the way. But defensive end Kevin Dodd sealed off the end of the line and the rolling momentum came to a halt. The bodies backed up in a heap; Kizer was stopped short of the end zone.
That was championship football. There was no lucky bounce of the ball involved.
Teams that are in the CFP conversation make those plays. It’s a play the 2014 Tigers wouldn’t have made.