Going into the 2015 season, no team in the ACC faced higher expectations than Clemson. While Florida State was coming off back-to-back-to-back conference titles with no ACC losses since 2012, the Tigers had enough talent returning on offense to be the media’s pick to win the league.
Through six games, Clemson still holds an undefeated record. However, it wasn’t until recently that the team began to look like the hands-down conference favorite and a College Football Playoff contender.
Dabo Swinney’s squad opened the season with victories over Wofford and Appalachian State. Many second- and third-teamers got on the field early in those contests as the Tigers got off to early leads, so it was difficult to gauge Clemson’s potential until it traveled to Louisville for a Thursday night showdown on Sept. 19.
Despite claiming a three-point win over the Cardinals, it was a sloppy performance offensively, and Swinney’s team certainly looked beatable. It wasn’t a promising outing considering a matchup with then-No. 6 Notre Dame was looming, and Clemson’s perfect record — and its playoff hopes, for that matter — appeared to be in jeopardy just four games into the season.
After a bye week, the Tigers picked up a major victory over the Fighting Irish in wet conditions. Since then, Swinney’s group has been dominant, handing one-sided losses to Georgia Tech and Boston College. In those two games, the offense was hitting on all cylinders.
In the first four contests of the season, Clemson’s offense averaged 405.5 yards per game. Over the last two, though, that number has sky-rocketed to 534.5 yards per game.
The 34-17 defeat of Boston College was particularly impressive, coming over an Eagles team that ranks No. 1 in the nation in total defense. The Tigers turned to the passing game in that matchup and couldn’t be stopped, as quarterback Deshaun Watson completed 27 of 41 passes for 420 and three touchdowns.
Running back Wayne Gallman has also been a key to the team’s offensive success. Although the sophomore was mostly used to keep Boston College’s defense honest this past weekend, Gallman rushed for 111 or more yards in three straight games before the Eagles came to Clemson.
The Tigers’ success hasn’t be limited to the offense. Despite losing eight starters from 2014, the defense has been outstanding all year and is coming off two of its best games. After allowing a stingy 303.5 yards per game in the first four matchups, the defense has tightened up even more by giving up just 238 yards per game against the Yellow Jackets and the Eagles.
It’s not a bad time for Clemson to be playing its best football, as Watson and Co. are approaching a tough stretch. After a game at Miami this weekend, a Halloween road trip to NC State will round out the month of October. Then, on Nov. 7, Florida State will make its way to Death Valley for a matchup that could very well determine who will represent the Atlantic Division in the ACC Championship Game.
The Tigers have reached the point where every weekend brings a must-win game. If they continue to play like they have in the last two weeks, they might find themselves competing in one of the real “must-win” games on New Year’s Eve in the College Football Playoff.