Now comes the hard part.
After navigating itself through the toughest part of its schedule, No. 3 Clemson now has to finish what it started. And though the path to a second straight undefeated regular season seems inevitable, it might be a little more difficult than we once thought it would.
Hosting Syracuse, Pitt and South Carolina with one road game at Wake Forest seems like an easy ride the rest of the way, but looks can be a little deceiving.
Syracuse comes into Death Valley this Saturday (3:30 p.m.) sporting a 4-4 (2-2 ACC) record after an upset win over then No. 17 Virginia Tech and a road win at Boston College. With a two-game winning streak and coming off a bye, the Orange are playing with a lot of confidence and have a legitimate shot at becoming bowl eligible under first-year head coach Dino Babers.
“Syracuse is going to be a big challenge. Like I said they’ve had an extra week. We’ve never played anybody that plays as fast as they do. I think they’ve got the leading receiver in the country. We’re just kind of getting into them right now, but they’re playing with a lot of confidence offensively, quarterback’s playing well, they have a million run-pass option type of plays built into what they do, so they’re very good,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Dino’s done a great job. They’ve got a true identity, and they believe in what they’re doing. You can tell that those kids have all bought into it.
“And then defensively, they’ve improved all year long from the beginning of the season to where they are now. They’ve gotten better and better. Just initial look at them, a lot of movement and they’re hardly every sitting in one spot. But it’s going to be a big challenge for us. We’re looking forward to the matchup and glad we’ve got them here at home.”
Pitt is 5-3 (2-2 ACC) and has one of the more balanced offenses in the conference. The Panthers are third in the ACC in rushing yards (231.8) and are averaging 191.2 yards a game though the air. On the defensive side, the secondary is young and inexperienced, but the defensive front is one of the ACC’s best. Pitt is second in the conference in rushing yards (103.2) allowed.
Wake Forest is also 5-3 and 2-2 inside the ACC and has been playing above its heads all year, but they have come back down to reality just a little bit with back-to-back losses to Florida State and Army. After starting the season 4-0, the Demon Deacons have lost three of their last four games.
Then there is the annual grudge match with South Carolina. This one might be a little scarier than it once appeared to be. The Gamecocks are 4-4 this year thanks to Saturday’s 24-21 upset of then No. 18 Tennessee. With freshman Jake Bentley now at quarterback, South Carolina is playing with a lot more confidence and seems like a more formidable opponent than it did a few weeks ago. Also, remember it is a rivalry game and emotions play a big role in a contest like this.
Granted, none of these four teams compare to the rough waters Clemson has already navigated itself through with road wins at Auburn, at Georgia Tech and at Florida State, and a home win against Louisville. However, the toughest games to win sometimes are the ones everyone expects you to win, i.e. NC State on Oct. 15.
It might seem like smooth sailing the rest of the way until the ACC Championship Game gets here, but there are still some choppy waters the Tigers must navigate themselves through before they wrap up what could be a second straight undefeated regular season.