Flawed but perfect, Clemson remains on track for title

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It’s been said that we now inhabit a post-factual world, one where emotion and opinion carry more weight than reason and reality. In this strange new world, truthiness holds an unbeaten record against truth; undefinable feelings trump — no pun intended — unimpeachable facts.

But facts are good. Facts are, to quote Merriam-Webster, “something that truly exists or happens.”

Facts are to be believed, to be trusted. Such as the following:

After beating Florida State 37-34 for its first win at Doak Campbell Stadium in a decade, Clemson is one of just five unbeaten teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. At the same time, several once-unbeaten teams fell on Saturday: Baylor, West Virginia, Nebraska and Boise State all lost, removing potential debris from the Tigers’ path toward a return to the College Football Playoff.

The win simultaneously put the Seminoles in Clemson’s rear-view mirror for the second year in a row, again providing a razor-thin degree of separation between the Tigers and their longtime Atlantic Coast Conference nemesis.

“This was a big goal within our goals,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, “to accomplish something that we hadn’t done down here in a long time.”

It’s also undeniable that there is nonetheless something slightly amiss with Clemson, which has spent much of the season’s first months in a strange purgatory straddling excellence and frustration — yet has always found that extra gear needed to escape Auburn, Troy, Louisville, North Carolina State and the Seminoles, each time by a single-digit margin.

“When we had to have the drive, we got it,” Swinney said. “When we had to make plays, when we had to have the fourth-down conversion, we got it. When we had to make the two-point play, we got it. When we had to make the field goal, we made it. When we had to get the stops, we got it.”

Case in point: Deshaun Watson, the Tigers’ reigning Heisman Trophy finalist. He hasn’t been as sharp this fall as during his superb sophomore season. He’s still been outstanding, as when leading Clemson to three consecutive scoring drives to reverse FSU’s 28-20 lead to start the fourth quarter.

“When you’ve got No. 4, he alleviates a lot of that stress,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.

No, the Tigers haven’t played their best football, but they have managed to survive the toughest part of the regular-season schedule. All seven of Clemson’s FBS opponents have a non-losing record; in fact, it’s easy to make the case that no team will bring a stronger overall résumé into the debut Playoff rankings, set to be unveiled Tuesday.

And it’s all downhill from here. The Tigers are tapped to face Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, South Carolina and the winner of the ACC Coastal Division before the playoff, meaning, for all intents and purposes, that this program is once again staring at a 13-0 regular season.

“We’ve got bigger goals than just winning the division but the next goal is to win the division,” Swinney said. “There’s a lot of things that we want to accomplish. Whatever comes after that comes after. Right now, it’s just one bite at a time.”

Condensed, the facts of the matter are thus: Clemson is unbeaten after eight games, has not played its best football, is through the hard part of its schedule and is again slated to represent the ACC in the College Football Playoff.

“The biggest thing is we know what we’ve got in our players,” Elliott said. “They’ve got a will to win.”

For all the talk, for all the negativity, for all the drama — for all the handwringing over Clemson’s flaws — almost nothing has changed. Largely ignored amid the team’s perceived sluggishness is how it mirrors last season, when Clemson won six games by 10 points or fewer. Last year, the Tigers were praised for their resilience. This year, they’re nitpicked for missing style points.

“I don’t know what to say to you other than this group believes they’re going to win. I never thought we’d lose, but boy, we make it hard sometimes,” Swinney said.

Clemson is flawed. So was the 2015 version. And yes, Clemson is also perfect. So was last year’s team, until meeting Alabama. These ideas aren’t mutually exclusive: Clemson is flawed yet perfect. All but five teams in the FBS are flawed, period.

And during a season even more chaotic than the last, there is something meaningful to be said of a team that has managed to maintain its perch among the elite of college football. Countless others have struggled this fall when placed under a similar spotlight, from Oregon and UCLA through Michigan State and Notre Dame.

Clemson, meanwhile, has found a way to blot out the pressure. Not that it’s gone unnoticed: “People want to see us slip and fall,” Watson said.

“People don’t expect us to be in this situation and be undefeated and be at the top. We understand that people are going to talk bad. There’s a lot of positive things going on, so if people want to bring up the negative things, it’s because they can’t find anything else negative going on.

“At the end of the day we just worry about Clemson. We don’t worry about the media or the critics. We focus on what we can do and we try to get better.”

It’s true: In all three phases, Clemson can improve. The offense can do a better job in the red zone. The offensive line can improve in both pass protection and in the running game. The defense, so capably led by coordinator Brent Venables, found itself gashed by FSU running back Dalvin Cook, who finished with 169 yards rushing and four scores.

“We’ve still got some work to do but we’re certainly on track,” Swinney said.

Nine long months ago, he sat behind a podium underneath University of Phoenix Stadium and spoke of the “top of the mountain.” Alabama was there, Swinney said, but we can see its peak, and we’ll get there.

There are far too many variables at play — such as a postseason opponent, for example — to say with complete confidence that Clemson will win the national championship. Alabama is a juggernaut. Michigan and Washington are intimidating.

What’s certain, however, is that the Tigers have the nation’s clearest path for the Playoff. Despite flaws in need of mending, it’s undeniable that Clemson is one of the select few capable of winning the title. After eight games, the Tigers are where we thought they’d be: perfect. That’s not an opinion but a fact.

“I love the heart of our team,” Swinney said. “They’re a bunch of fighters, man. A bunch of champions.”

Copyright 2016 WCNC


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