The No. 2 ranked Clemson Tigers go into the Virtual College Football Playoff on the back of a 12-1 season that rarely thrilled, but yet always seemed destined to finish with a spot among the top four teams in the nation. Dabo Swinney’s eighth full year as head coach was another successful one for the South Carolina school as they swept through the ACC and held off No. 19 ranked Virginia Tech to claim the conference championship in Atlanta.
The Tigers had the perfect platform to start their season off with a bang: a nationally televised clash on the road against SEC powerhouse Auburn. It was a tight affair throughout, with defenses dominating the contest, but Clemson did enough to shut down the vaunted Auburn rushing game and hold off a fourth quarter comeback to take a 19-13 victory back to the Palmetto State.
The second week of the season saw the Tigers hosting Troy of the Sun Belt. It was a game that the Tigers should have dominated given the gulf in class and recruiting dollars between the two programs, but Clemson labored their way to a narrow 30-24 win. This habit of playing down to the level of their opposition was one that plagued Clemson over the first two thirds of the season as impressive victories (59-0 over South Carolina State, 56-10 over Boston College) occurred just as often as narrow escapes (24-17 in overtime against NC State, 37-34 at Florida State).
The most impressive win to date for the Tigers came at an October 1 showdown against fellow ACC and College Football Playoff contenders Louisville. The No. 3 Cardinals were ranked ahead of the No. 5 Tigers at the time, and quarterback Lamar Jackson was the talk of the college football world thanks to his gaudy numbers during non-conference play. This was Deshaun Watson’s day to shine however, as the Clemson quarterback outduelled the eventual Heisman Trophy winner, passing for 306 yards and five touchdowns in the victory.
Clemson was rolling along nicely, and the Tigers reached 9-0 before their combination of turnovers and playing to their oppositions strengths at times came back to haunt them. The Tigers had no reason to lose a November home game to Pittsburgh, but Clemson never put the high scoring Panthers away. Down by eight points entering the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh out maneuvered Clemson when it came to clock management down the stretch and kicked a game winning field goal with six seconds left to pull off the stunning upset.
This loss could have ruined the Tigers’ season, but instead it was just the wake-up call that Clemson required. A routine victory over Wake Forest was followed by a crushing 56-7 win over an admittedly offensively challenged South Carolina team in a rivalry game that is rarely dominated to such degree. The 42-36 ACC Title Game victory over Virginia Tech was another showcase day for Watson as he scored five total touchdowns to set up Clemson’s quarterfinal date with Oklahoma in one of the VCFP quarterfinal matchups.