The Tigers had a less than inspiring performance against the now 2-3 UNC Tar Heels. Carolina had lost close games to Wake Forest and Appalachian State in prior weeks and seemed primed for a thorough beating with #1 Clemson coming into town. Instead, their defense confused Clemson’s offensive line throughout much of the game. They hurried Trevor Lawrence 7 times and sacked him once. More astounding though, they held Travis Etienne to 67 yards and 4.8 YPC.
Clemson managed to pull out a 21-20 victory after stopping a two-point conversion attempt in the final two minutes and then coming up with the onside kick, but the close call was disconcerting.
Meanwhile, Alabama took care of business against Ole Miss with a comfortable 59-31 win. Additionally, their win over Duke doesn’t look so shabby after the Blue Devils dismantled Virginia Tech in Lane Stadium. Meanwhile, Clemson’s win over the Aggies is a bit tarnished following their loss to Auburn and close call against Arkansas.
Tua Tagovailoa already has 1,718 passing yards and 23 passing TDs (for reference, Trevor Lawrence has 1,131 and 8 passing TDs). If we’re being honest, Alabama looks better than Clemson right now. If they played next week Alabama would and should be favored. For now, Alabama should be #1. The AP Poll voters got it right at the start of the season when Clemson was #1 and they have it right now. Before you freak out, remember that Alabama looked far superior to Clemson last September too. How’d that work out?
Here’s the new AP Poll (teams in bold discussed below):
- Ohio State
- Notre Dame
- Penn State
- Boise State
- Arizona State
- Oklahoma State
- Wake Forest
- Texas A&M/Michigan State
The top nine ranked teams plus Penn State are the only remaining playoff contenders in my view. I would be stunned if any other team were to crack the final playoff field. I could even narrow it to the top 8, but Notre Dame acquitted themselves well in loss on the road at night against Georgia. If Georgia wins the SEC and there is mayhem around it, an 11-1 Notre Dame could deserve and get a playoff bid. It’s not to say all other teams are “eliminated” (Wake Forest is undefeated at #22), it’s just we can look at it with a discerning eye and know with pretty good odds that Florida isn’t going to get through Auburn, LSU, and Georgia. Texas isn’t going to beat OU twice, etc.
Regarding Wake Forest, it’s good to see another ACC crack the top 25 and especially good to see Wake Forest do it as they jump Virginia, SMU, Texas A&M, and Michigan State for the #22 spot. It’s the first time this decade they’ve made it into the AP poll. I don’t actually think they’re very good (they beat Utah State and Boston College by just 3 each), but with their only road trip before playing Clemson being at hapless Virginia Tech, 9-0 is feasible (though I tend to think they lose to FSU at home).
Also, it’s interesting to see Texas A&M remain ranked following a loss to Auburn and then a close call against Arkansas this weekend. I’m all for them not being punished for having an absurd schedule that includes half of the top 10 (Clemson, Auburn, Alabama, LSU, and Georgia), but they’re 0-2 against them with no quality wins. That being said, I’d pick the Aggies to beat any of the teams right behind them (Michigan State, Cal, Memphis, or App State) so maybe 25th is fair enough.
Now a few more thoughts on Clemson and their game against UNC.
Let’s start with the defense which put forth a heroic performance to bail out the offense and preserve a win. They forced 7 punts, sacked the QB 3 times, and had 9 tackles for loss. They surrendered only 20 points with 7 coming after a Travis Etienne fumble in their own territory. They only allowed UNC to drive the field twice, once early and then the final drive of the game. Although the didn’t come through on the last drive, they did at the end when they stopped the two point conversion.
Isaiah Simmons has to be a first rounder. I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed a LB stand out or make that much of an impact in a game like he did in this one. He was all over the place. His combination of speed and physical tackling is unreal. He had one sack and 2.5 TFL in this one. He may be the best player on the team.
Chad Smith continues to impress me. He is a sure tackler. Tanner Muse has improved immensely from last season. He played well. Jordan Williams picked up a sack. Finally Derion Kendrick has been excellent. What a great move for him and the team to put him at CB. He has a bright future there. It was weird to see AJ Terrell get beat in one-on-one coverage on that first TD. That almost never happens. He is so good. That may be the only time we see that all season. All around it was a phenomenal defensive effort. Brent Venables deserves the Broyles Award. Both defensive coordinators (Venables and Bateman) out-dueled their offensive counterparts in this game.
Tee Higgins is currently our best offensive player. He has 505 receiving yards which is 9th nationally and 2nd in the ACC (Sage Surratt, Wake. He had 6 catches for 129 yards and the go-ahead TD. This is despite the defense trying to force Clemson to run:
“Their plan was to make us run the ball and we weren’t efficient enough with the penalties. At times we ran the ball well... Very inefficient... We’ll be alright. Ain’t no reason to panic.” - Dabo Swinney
The offensive line stunk it up. I don’t know exactly why, but former QB turned LB Chazz Surratt was in the backfield too often. Pollard at center passed him off to Etienne on one play and Etienne got blown up. There were also several false starts in key moments (Lawrence acknowledged that one was his fault), and then of course the big fumble.
Etienne’s YPC is down from 8.0 last season to 6.9 this season. 6.9 is still excellent, but it’s obviously a significant step back. Furthermore, if you take out the 90-yard run against Georgia Tech, he is averaging 5.6 YPC. You wouldn’t think losing Falcinelli and Hyatt would hurt the run blocking quite this much. This is an area where Clemson’s offense can improve, as they’ve obviously shown insane potential here.
The other area where they can and likely will improve is at attacking over the middle. We have Amari Rodgers back. We didn’t attack Syracuse much over the middle with short and intermediate passing despite their weakness at LB. I know Amari Rodgers is a much different player than Hunter Renfrow, but if he is going to play they slot it seems using him to attack over the middle would be key. JC Chalk got a few catches in this one and an expanded role could be in store. I attended the Falcons game on Sunday and in crunch time they often had RB Devonta Freeman leak out 5 yards behind the defensive line and serve as an effective check-down. Travis Etienne could excel there. However they do it, attacking there could free up other options for the offense.
Finally, it’s worth noting that these sorts of games have a way of galvanizing the team and pushing them to get better. It’s especially good timing with the bye week coming to use this as fresh motivation for two weeks. Dabo even promised a “nice little film session on Monday,” noting: “It’s called accountability. It’s called ownership. It’s called truth.”
Clemson can’t afford the proverbial Pitt loss to galvanize them, so a close win will have to do! Their schedule is just too weak. It’s very feasible Oklahoma, an SEC team and a Big 10 team all go undefeated. That would leave just one more playoff spot and Clemson really doesn’t want their schedule getting compared to that of a one-loss Georgia, LSU, or Auburn. Fortunately, nobody improves throughout a season quite like the Swinney-era Clemson Tigers, so again:
“Ain’t no reason to panic.” - Dabo Swinney
If you’d like to weigh in on the rankings, you can take this poll run by a professional marketing researcher, Heath Gregory. In it, they rank teams based on “best” to worst using a MaxDiff methodology. Check it out here! The poll will automatically close once they have enough responses.
As always, thanks for reading and please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.