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No time to exhale--yet

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With a road win over perennial power Florida State in the rear view mirror, it would be natural for fans of Clemson’s football program to exhale a bit. After all, the remaining games on the schedule seemingly offer little resistance.

Once you reach that point, college football has you right where it wants you.

Crazy things happen in November, every single year. Just last week—before November even arrived—three of the seven Power 5 unbeatens were defeated. Two of them were underdogs, but Baylor lost to Texas as a slight favorite. It proves, once again, that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted in college football.

Inside Clemson’s program, for that very reason, the aforementioned collective exhale never occurred. Frankly, it can’t. Sure, there was celebration and vivacious dancing in the locker room after winning at Doak Campbell Stadium. Only three Clemson teams in history have been able to do that, and for a team that danced after wins over Troy and South Carolina State earlier this season, clearly there was a reason to celebrate—for a moment.

Now, it’s back to work. The Tigers are back to form this week. Players and coaches have espoused the virtues of Syracuse’s upstart football program under Dino Babers. They have gone on and on about tempo and focus and how improved the opponent is and playing to a standard and not beating Clemson.

Those aren’t new ideas, certainly, but regurgitating those ideas is more important now than it is in September or October. The same mentality that caused fans to exhale after Clemson escaped Florida State with its perfect record intact has proven perilous to wannabe contenders on an annual basis since the dawn of college football’s existence.

Clemson’s football team can’t get complacent, but fans and media members don’t have to ignore the urge. This is especially true when considering the path the Tigers must tread toward the ACC Championship. Players and coaches must respect the journey, but any fan looking to make plans in December and January can’t help but look far off into the distance at what lies at the end of the road.

The analytics are absolutely and unequivocally clear about the simplicity of Clemson’s path. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Tigers a 58.4 percent chance of winning out during the regular season, while the S&P+ rankings have that chance all the way up at 75 percent. No game carries a win probability below 88 percent in either system.

Those two analytic bodies are also clear when handicapping Saturday’s game against Syracuse. Essentially, both give the Orange a four percent chance of leaving Memorial Stadium with a victory on Saturday. That’s enough of a shot for players and coaches to show up for practice and watch film, but it’s not enough for fans to worry prior to kickoff.

Yes, this offense is fast. Amba Etta-Tawo is capable of exploding on Clemson’s secondary. Eric Dungey is capable and calm at quarterback. Babers is a master motivator capable of drawing the best out of his team. The defense has improved by leaps and bounds since the start of the season.

But Clemson is pretty good, too—and that’s precisely the point. As long as Clemson handles its business, a spot in Orlando is a sure thing. Take it to the bank. Go ahead and make your reservations.

The Tigers should probably still show up expecting a fight, though. After all, this team almost gagged away a win against N.C. State at home and sports a ridiculously low +6.7 point differential in Death Valley this season.

In November college football, nothing is as sure as somebody’s sure thing failing to materialize. All Clemson has to do now is avoid being on that side of history.

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