BLACKSBURG, Va. — When the Atlantic Coast Conference released the 2017 football schedule last February, everyone pointed to Clemson’s opening month of the season.
With Auburn already on the schedule for a home date in the second week of the season, the ACC had the defending national champions opening up conference play the following week at Louisville, and then two weeks later sent them to Blacksburg, Va., to face an up-and-coming Virginia Tech program.
To top things off, Auburn (No. 13), Louisville (No. 14) and Virginia Tech (No. 12) were all ranked in the top 15 when they played the Tigers.
Many saw the Tigers coming out of the opening month with four wins at best, a result many said would have Clemson in the conversation for a return to the College Football Playoff. However, few expected the Tigers to win all five, including double-digit road wins at Louisville and at Virginia Tech.
But thanks to Saturday’s 31-17 victory at No. 12 Virginia Tech, second-ranked Clemson finds itself 5-0 and right smack in front of the line when it comes to the College Football Playoff. The Tigers also became the first team in the history of the Associated Press rankings to win three games against top 15 opponents in the month of September.
“I don’t know how many people had an opportunity to do that, but it is still a heck of a deal,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Hats off to our guys.”
The Tigers (3-0 ACC) were never truly challenged by Virginia Tech. Before most of the fans even settled into their seats, Clemson jumped on top 10-0. The Tigers got a 23-yard Alex Spence field goal on its opening possession, and then running back Tavien Feaster went 60 yards after catching a pass from Kelly Bryant on their second possession.
The defense did its job too as it held the Hokies (4-1, 0-1 ACC) to a season-low 342 total yards, including just 90 yards on the ground. They also forced three second-half turnovers, including a 22-yard interception return by Dorian O’Daniel
“We have a fast defense,” Swinney said. “We have some guys that can run. It seems like Dorian and (Tanner) Muse are always closing in. Those two guys are everywhere. But our backers can run and we are athletic up front.
“They just take a lot of pride in playing for each other and getting their job done.”
Clemson led 17-3 at the break and then extended its lead after defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence forced a fumble that O’Daniel recovered to set up Feaster with a one-yard touchdown with 7:12 left to play in the third quarter.
“We played a tall September schedule,” Bryant said. “We know what we have to do to get the job done. No matter how difficult the task, we know what we have to do in order to get it done. It says a lot about our team.”
Swinney says the 5-0 start says a lot about his team’s heart, chemistry and the leadership on the team.
“Those are the things we learned, and we know we are good enough,” Swinney said. “They know what it takes. They’re battled tested. They have been on the road and they have played tough teams so I think the experience is a positive for us. They know what it takes, but now they have to continue to be willing to do what it takes.
“That is staying committed to how we get ready and continuing to pay the price in preparation.”
— Photo Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports