Clemson entered Saturday night’s ACC championship game vulnerable to an upset, in the eyes of some. The Tigers left it the nation’s clear No. 1 team entering the playoff after a convincing win over North Carolina.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The last of orange-and-purple confetti had sprinkled down onto the field at Bank of America Stadium by the time Dabo Swinney finally arrived for his postgame press conference at the ACC championship game. On Saturday night, the head coach at Clemson spent the duration of his matchup with North Carolina wearing a white crewneck sweatshirt. But Swinney’s postgame routine evidently called for a fashion audible: When he arrived to face reporters, he’d changed into an oversized Clemson jersey, one emblazoned with the number 100 on its chest.
Before answering questions, Swinney leaned into his microphone. “In case y’all are wondering what the heck is going on with this jersey, it was my 100th game, and the players gave me this in the locker room,” Swinney said. “I’m just really humbled by that.”
Swinney couldn’t have asked for a more satisfactory finish to his 100th game at Clemson. On Saturday the top-ranked Tigers beat No. 10 North Carolina 45–37 to win the ACC championship and punch their tickets to the College Football Playoff. Clemson—like Swinney’s wardrobe—made a startling statement against the Tar Heels, offering its most convincing case yet that no team in college football deserves the No. 1 ranking as much as it does.
Now Clemson finds itself in an unfamiliar position under Swinney: It gets to play for a national championship, and do so as an undefeated team. With the playoff field effectively set in stone, the three other expected title contenders—Alabama, Oklahoma and Michigan State—have each lost a game. That means Clemson enters one of the most important stretches in program history as the top team in college football. And for the first time in Swinney’s career, the target is on the Tigers’ backs.
Clemson looked every bit like the No. 1 team in the country on Saturday, artfully taking care of business against North Carolina. Sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Tigers set ACC title game records with 608 yards of offense, 33 first downs and 98 offensive plays. Plus, they did it all against a North Carolina defense that had been one of the most improved units in the conference this season behind coordinator Gene Chizik.
Early on the Tar Heels kept pace for two quarters and entered halftime trailing the Tigers 21–16. On its first third-quarter drive, quarterback Marquise Williams marched the North Carolina offense into the red zone as it sought the go-ahead score. But Clemson cornerback Cordrea Tankersley picked off Williams at the Tigers’ four-yard line, deflating the Tar Heels’ momentum. The Tigers turned the takeaway into the first of three straight scoring drives. “If you don’t fit exactly where you’re supposed to, and make a tackle,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora says, “they’re gonna make a big play.”
Despite trailing by as many as 19 in the second half, UNC made it a one-score game with 1:13 to play on a Williams touchdown pass to Ryan Switzer. North Carolina attempted an onside kick and recovered, but it was flagged for being offsides. Even though replay didn’t appear to support the penalty, the Tar Heels were forced to kick again. This time Clemson recovered and ran out the clock.
Afterward, Fedora was blunt when referencing the referees’ call. “They were wrong. That’s all I’m going to say about it,” he said.
A bigger problem for North Carolina was Watson, who the Tar Heels simply couldn’t stop. The quarterback cemented his spot as a finalist, if not more, at next week’s Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York. “He’s not just the best player in this conference,” Swinney said. “He’s the best player in the country.” Watson set ACC title game records with 421 yards of offense and six total touchdowns. He led Clemson’s offense to two drives of more than 90 yards (96, 97), another first in the ACC title game.
As ACC commissioner John Swofford honored Swinney and Watson, the game MVP, after Clemson’s victory, the quarterback flashed a quick Heisman pose that was caught on the stadium’s video board. The image caused thousands of lingering Clemson fans to erupt in cheers.
On Monday night Watson will find out if he gets to make a trip to New York and vie for college football’s top prize. For now, he’s focused on what his team earned on Saturday. “If I get invited, then we’re going to celebrate it and have fun with it. If not, then oh well,” Watson said. “But I feel like I’m one of the best in the country, and that’s because of the players I have with me and the coaching staff I have in this program.”
That program is now the only undefeated Power Five team, and on Saturday the figures within the Tigers’ quest for perfection spilled out into a postgame celebration at Bank of American Stadium. Kathleen Swinney, Dabo’s wife, hugged her husband’s neck as he walked across the field, surfing through a crowd of orange-clad well-wishers. Freshman safety Jefferie Gibson skipped in the direction of the locker room, yelling “Miami, here we come!” to anyone who would listen. Meanwhile, one Clemson staffer high-fived passing Tigers and issued a single directive over and over: “Get ready to celebrate!”
In a playoff system tailor-made for debate, no one questions Clemson’s place among college football’s elite programs in 2015. The Tigers now boast three wins over 10-win teams (Notre Dame, Florida State and North Carolina) alongside a conference title and an unblemished record. Now No. 1 Clemson is likely bound for the Orange Bowl semifinal on Dec. 31, the first in a two-step process that would bring another national title to the school.
But after beating North Carolina, Swinney said he stressed to his players the importance of what they’d already accomplished. The coach still remembers being a member of Alabama’s 1992 national championship team, a group that ended the season 13–0 under coach Gene Stallings. That’s why Swinney knows exactly how hard it is to be perfect in college football. On Saturday, he pressed that his players appreciate the moment.
But unlike during Swinney’s career as a player, a 13–0 record no longer wins a national championship in college football. Instead, Clemson still has a lot to play for, and Swinney hopes the 100th game of his career was simply a prelude to even greater heights for the Tigers.
“There’s never been a 15–0 college football team,” Swinney said. “Why not at Clemson?”