Legitimate Playoff Contender
1. Clemson (Beat Notre Dame / Previous: 1)
Solid & Ranked
2. Florida State (Beat Wake Forest / Previous: 3)
3. Notre Dame (Lost to Clemson / Previous: 2)
4. Duke (Beat Boston College / Previous: 5)
5. Louisville (Beat NC State / Previous: 8)
6. North Carolina (Beat Georgia Tech / Previous: 11)
7. Pittsburgh (Beat Virginia Tech / Previous: 12)
8. Miami (Lost to Cincinnati / Previous: 4)
9. Georgia Tech (Lost to North Carolina / Previous: 6)
10. NC State (Lost to Louisville / Previous: 7)
11. Boston College (Lost to Duke / Previous: 10)
12. Virginia Tech (Lost to Pittsburgh / Previous: 9)
13. Syracuse (Bye / Previous: 13)
14. Virginia (Bye / Previous: 14)
15. Wake Forest (Lost to Florida State / Previous: 15)
As the final seconds ticked away, and I watched the student section flood the field, I thought to myself how different Clemson's program looks today compared to when I was in the student section during the Tommy Bowden era. When people from Atlanta who weren't familiar with Clemson would ask what Clemson football was like, my typical response was something along the lines of, "We're not all that great, but there's so much school spirit, and we love it so much. I can only imagine if we were really good."
We don't have to imagine anymore.
Clemson broke into legitimate playoff contention with a tremendous win over Notre Dame. Despite a steady, driving rain for much of the day, Clemson fans were not deterred. The tailgate scene was jubilant as always, and the crowd at the game wouldn't be silenced, even as the rain grew heavier. Two delay of game penalties and a false start penalty appeared to be direct results of the crowd noise.
You never know in this sport, but it’s hard to find too many potential trouble spots on Clemson’s schedule if this lead holds.
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) October 4, 2015
Notre Dame entered with some major injuries. However, their offensive line play had been lauded as arguably the best in the country. For most of the game, the Tigers beat them at the line of scrimmage. Even after losing countless players off the defensive line to the NFL, Brent Venables somehow retooled and, once again, has one of the better defenses in the entire country.
It wasn't perfect. Clemson got off to a great start, but then began to struggle offensively. They took a few deep shots, any of which would have been daggers, but didn't come through. As Notre Dame surged back, Clemson's offense became predictable and ultra-conservative. Additionally, Deshaun Watson rushed the ball 16 times, which should scare any Clemson fan who remembers how different the offense looks without #4 at the helm.
The defense, which isn't as deep as a year ago, looked tired late in the game. Even still, with the game slipping away, and a two-point conversation needed for Notre Dame to tie the game, Clemson's defensive line pushed the vaunted Irish O-line back and stopped a QB keeper.
A couple key take-aways for me from this one:
- Clemson is a real playoff contender, not just some ACC team who is a mere product of their schedule. While it's going to be extremely challenging to win out, health permitting, it is possible. Clemson looks better than Florida State and already cleared the two other major hurdles on the schedule (Louisville and Notre Dame). Georgia Tech and South Carolina don't look all that scary anymore either. Alas, one game at a time. Beat the Nerds!
- Christian Wilkins is a war daddy, Jayron Kease is a superstar, and Clemson's defense is coached by the best defensive coordinator in the country. For him to get the defense playing at this level so quickly and with so many new starters is unbelievable. He has vastly surpassed my expectations for this season.
- Overall, I've been happy with ScElliot taking over for Chad Morris, but last night it seemed they went ultra-conservative just a bit too early. Even just some screen passes or jet sweeps would have been nice. Still, I can't complain too much given Swinney's stellar record at holding late leads and how heavy the rain was getting at that point of the night. I was more bothered by the constant designed run plays for DeShaun Watson. He broke one off for a long TD run, and I like having it in the playbook to keep defenses honest, but not as a staple play on third downs. I'm hopeful Jeff Scott and Tony Elliot learn from their mistakes and continue to improve as co-coordinators, and I am grateful that their learning opportunity didn't come from a loss or result in a Watson injury. The coordinator combo has now beat Notre Dame and Oklahoma and should only continue to improve.
- I am left feeling overwhelmingly grateful to be a member of the Clemson family. Despite a literal hurricane dumping rain across the state (with serious flooding closer to Columbia), 82,415 fans packed Death Valley and managed to make an impact on the game.
- Another STS writer, Kraken, wrote the following about not taking Clemson's success for granted: "Be a part of it. Enjoy the hell out of it. It's not written on the Oculus that we have to be a top 15 team every year."
It didn't really resonate with me until I watched those students rush the field, many of them likely for the first time. It's so easy to take it for granted and continue to demand more. While I think restless discontent, constant improvement, and innovation are all good things, we would be foolish to overlook just how fun college football is for us right now. If you're anything like me, when you walked into work on Monday, multiple people came to your desk and congratulated (if that's the right word) you on the win and invited you to tell them about your experience watching the game. Dabo is doing something special, and I promise I am going to heed Kraken's request and enjoy every moment of it.
"Think about this....in the last three years (2011-2014), this program is now 36-7 with wins over LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Ohio St., Oklahoma and now (2015) Notre Dame. He (Coach Swinney) has taken this program to a whole different level. So what you saw there was not just relief, but he is so darn proud of his program and what they've built here." - Kirk Herbstreit
Gameday sign by Chris Harrell
Around the ACC
Before a great slate of games on Saturday, Miami played in the ESPN Thursday Night game. The Hurricanes moved the ball adeptly, but failed to come up in big situations, on third down and in the red zone, time and time again. Cincinnati, who has already lost to Temple and Memphis, scored 34 points on a mediocre Miami defense. Miami sent seven players to the NFL draft last season and they continue to recruit at (nearly) a Clemson-level, but they simply do not know how to win. The Hurricane loss is a bad one for the ACC. They may have peaked in the second quarter of week 3 against Nebraska... That's a mark of bad coaching. With FSU, VT, Clemson, and Duke next on the schedule, it may be a fair question to ask if Al Golden will win another game as the Hurricanes head coach.
Duke gutted out a hard-fought defensive battle against BC. The Blue Devils benefited from a close call on a bobbled would-be TD catch when it was ruled that the Boston College receiver did not have control and the pass was incomplete. The Eagles failed to convert on the ensuing field goal, netting the Eagles zero points on the drive. Duke won 9-7 and moved to 2-0 in the ACC.
Louisville proved their bad start was at least partially, just that, a bad start. The Cardinals picked up their second win of the season and handed NC State their fifth straight loss in a conference home opener. NC State's tale (as well as Georgia Tech's) is a classic example of why you should never put too much stock in blowout wins over cupcake opponents. The Cardinals stuffed the run against the 'Pack (who dismissed running back Shadrach Thornton). Though their offense is mediocre, Louisville's defense is legitimate, and Clemson's rushing success against them is encouraging. The Cardinals could win their last six games of the season and have a chance to finish on a nine game winning streak if they're able to win in Tallahassee following their upcoming bye week.
Speaking of Florida State, they struggled their way to a win in Winston-Salem. Wake Forest had the ball down eight in the fourth quarter with a opportunity to extend the game. They didn't, but for them to be that competitive is a moral victory for the Deacons and a hollow victory for the 'Noles, who lost Dalvin Cook to a hamstring injury. With Louisville, at Clemson, and at Florida still on the schedule, the 'Noles don't look like a team that can go undefeated, though they've gone 12-0 while looking mediocre before.
Georgia Tech continues ramblin' down the ACC Power Rankings. After taking a 21-0 lead in the second quarter, they allowed 38 points to UNC and lost to the Heels for the second straight season. With two losses to Coastal foes already etched in the standings (the other being a loss to Duke for the second straight year), it will be extremely difficult for them to battle back and re-appear in the ACC Championship Game. Last year, I did not buy the hype until they proved me wrong by closing the year with wins over Clemson, Georgia, and Mississippi State (with a loss to FSU sandwiched in there). They lost their best receivers and backs, but hoped returning the rest of the offense and most of their defense would lead to improvement anyway. It turns out that it isn't all about the QB in Paul Johnson's option attack. Additionally, even with more experience, the Tech defense still looks awful. Recruiting matters.
For UNC, the loss to South Carolina in Charlotte is looking more and more like a fluke, as they appear capable of getting back to Charlotte for a much bigger game. Marquise Williams reclaimed the QB role and ran for over 100 yards. While they're inconsistent and shaky on defense, the Heels have a high ceiling. They face Wake Forest and UVA next before a big Thursday night ESPN game on a short week at Pittsburgh. If they escape that with a win, they'll almost certainly be sitting at 7-1 with Duke, Miami, and VT, in consecutive weeks, to decide the Coastal. Maybe they will be a contender in the Coastal after all.
It was a good week for the Panthers, who beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Additionally, Iowa beat Wisconsin, making their three point loss to the Hawkeyes not look quite so bad. Pittsburgh is in the mix with Duke, UNC, and, seemingly, every other team to win the Coastal, though I wouldn't pick them at this point.