Clemson isn’t making it easy on those pundits that predict chaos in the College Football Playoff rankings. At this point, it has to be annoying.
The scenario seems to be playing out exactly the same way every week. Either Clemson doesn’t play a worthy opponent, thereby nullifying the result in the minds of many, or it underwhelms to the point that many—even its own fans—start trying to figure out how far to drop it in the next batch of polls.
Saturday’s game in Tallahassee was the latest such effort seemingly designed to confound the logical thinkers that will play a role in deciding which teams make the CFP field. The Tigers’ 37-34 win featured a similar script to several other games this season. In each of them, it felt as if they were teetering on a razor’s edge, daring defeat to approach them like a matador teasing an angry bull.
There was plenty of ammunition for those who wanted to see (or predicted) Clemson’s hopes and dreams go down in flames. It went more than two quarters without scoring a touchdown, surrendering four to Florida State in that span. It lost the turnover margin, again. It allowed a pair of one-play touchdown drives to Dalvin Cook—who gained 113 of his 169 rushing yards on those two snaps—in the third quarter of a road game in a hostile environment that was growing increasingly frenzied by the moment.
Then, just as it had with every previous near-loss, the Tigers appeared to the Doak Campbell crowd in resurrected form. Two third-down conversion passes from Deshaun Watson to Mike Williams in the fourth quarter’s first four plays led to a touchdown. Third-and-21 was no big deal: 20-yard pass to Hunter Renfrow, 11-yard run by Wayne Gallman, move the chains to set up Greg Huegel’s 46-yard field goal that seized the lead.
When the Seminoles answered back, the Tigers saved their best for last—a five-play, 75-yard drive where three of the plays saw the ball enter tight end Jordan Leggett’s hands. He accounted for 70 yards and the game-winning touchdown on those three catches.
All that was left to do was to watch the Seminoles self-destruct. And boy, did they ever, gaining three first downs and somehow only managing to net 12 yards on the final drive.
This is the story of Clemson’s season, and it seems unlikely to change any time soon. The Tigers have played more one-score games than anyone—five, to be exact. Familiarity breeds confidence in those circumstances, especially since the Tigers are 5-0 in those games. Watson picked himself off the mat, completing seven of his 11 throws for 134 yards and a touchdown in the final quarter after critical miscues and overthrows seemed destined to define his performance.
Once again, Clemson’s opponent appeared incapable of finishing a game it could have very easily won. It’s as if the Tigers’ adversaries have cooked a gourmet meal, set the food out on the table, fixed a plate for themselves, and when it’s time to feast, they suddenly forget how to use a fork.
In the case of Florida State, the way it went down had to feel excruciating. Leading by eight with a quarter to play at home, the Noles gave up a touchdown drive but made a play to break up the potential tying two-point attempt. Then came the infamous block below the waist that sent Jimbo Fisher into a frenzy out of which he probably still hasn’t come.
FSU did manage a touchdown with fewer than four minutes to play. It did manage to move the ball to Clemson’s 34-yard line trailing by three. Then disaster struck: false start, false start, incomplete pass, incomplete pass, sack, sack. For people who like math, the Seminoles went backwards 33 yards—one-third of the entire length of the field—on their final set of downs.
Not that this is anything new for Clemson. To borrow a biblical analogy, it’s as if Clemson dutifully walks around the wall of its opponent each week, facing ridicule and scorn from adversarial on-lookers from the outside, the people standing atop the wall, and even from among its own ranks. Then, when the marching is over, the Tigers blow their trumpets and wait for the wall to collapse on top of the opponent so they can go claim the victory that was theirs all along.
It may not be a thing of beauty, but Clemson is unbeaten. The array of teams it has defeated stacks up favorably against any other body of work in the country. Sadly, that won’t be enough for some, but it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to bet against a team that finds a way better than anyone else in college football.