As Dabo Swinney dropped to his knees and pounded the turf at Memorial Stadium after N.C. State’s 33-yard winning field goal attempt went wide right, there was only one conclusion to draw.
No. 3 Clemson is still livin’ right.
The Tigers escaped N.C. State in overtime 24-17 to win their 13th consecutive ACC game and avoid their first loss to an unranked opponent since Nov. 19, 2011. And it continued an almost unreal run for Clemson of being on the right end of heart-stopping finishes going back to Notre Dame last season and continuing this year with Auburn, Louisville and now N.C. State.
So Clemson is 7-0, unlikely to lose any ground in the rankings and gets a much-needed bye week with some key players like running back Wayne Gallman and receiver Hunter Renfrow banged up.
But there’s no doubt that the Tigers are now in the throes of an affliction fairly common in this era of college football.
As Florida State experienced in 2014 and Ohio State struggled with in 2015, it can be both a blessing and a curse to return the same core of players after a breakthrough year. While Swinney wouldn’t trade the abundance of talent he has on his roster right now, it is simply difficult for a team to replicate the same chemistry and live up to sky-high expectations after an offseason of hype.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott offered a revealing quote this week, telling Tiger Illustrated: “When you have a really good game, we as coaches worry about guys reading too many newspaper clippings over five days. When you have eight months to read how good you are, it’s just human nature. You’ve got to kind of get all that off of you and out of you a little bit and go back to work.”
Despite returning eight offensive starters and adding its top receiver Mike Williams off a medical redshirt, Clemson simply has not executed at the same level it did at the end of last season when it tore through Alabama in the national championship game. The Tigers committed four turnovers against N.C. State, two of which occurred inside the Wolfpack’s 10-yard line. Clemson also got stuffed on fourth-and-goal at the 1, and Deshaun Watson also threw a pick-six on the first play of the second half. In other words, the Tigers mistakes produced a 28-point swing on the scoreboard that nearly added up to their first loss.
Clemson is playing like a team that needs a wakeup call, and it certainly could happen on Oct. 29 at Florida State. If the Tigers drop that one and finish out the year with wins against Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and South Carolina, they’ll still be in prime position to win the ACC and make the playoff.
Still, it feels like they’re going to need to play at a much higher level for that to even matter. For now, Clemson is still in the “winners” category, but there are troubling signs that could turn the Tigers into “losers” before long.
Here are the rest of Saturday’s winners and losers in college football: