Clemson's win over Florida State proved the Tigers are one of the nation's best, but the Tigers still aren't dominating the way they should be.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — After his team lost the turnover battle but won the game for the third time in four tries, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney briefly considered a new philosophy. "I'm just going to quit worrying about that," Swinney cracked early Sunday morning to answer a turnover question following the Tigers' 37–34 win at Florida State.
Before Swinney could continue, longtime Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret dropped in a startling statistic. "We're 9–1 the last 10 games when we lose the turnover battle," Bourret said. Swinney just shook his head. "That don't make any sense," said Swinney, whose team threw two interceptions and returned the favor once Saturday night. "I'm going to have a very short coaching career if we don't get that turned around." Of course that last part isn't true. Swinney is in the midst of what should be a long and quite fruitful career, and he once again has his team in position to win the ACC and make the College Football Playoff. The 2016 Tigers haven't made it look as easy as the 2015 Tigers did, but Swinney points to oddball stats such as the winning in spite of turnovers as evidence of his team's resiliency rather than a flaw that might get exploited later. "It's the dadgummest thing I've ever seen," Swinney said. "It just tells you the strength of our football team. We're a tough out. We're not a one-dimensional team. We're like that triple-braided cord. We're tough to beat."
Swinney cited the 12th verse of the fourth chapter of Ecclesiastes in that quote. The 13th verse says this: "Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning." It's probably some kind of warning that the Tigers have lost the turnover contest so often recently. And though the 9–1 statistic is astounding, the one in the loss column is fairly significant. Clemson's only turnover in last season's national title game was a second-quarter interception by Alabama's Eddie Jackson. Alabama, which committed zero turnovers that night, scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession. Alabama wound up needing a perfectly timed and executed onside kick in the fourth quarter to finally break Clemson's serve. Given the 45–40 final score, an interception that led to a touchdown mattered quite a bit.
Swinney is not foolish, though. He knows his team has a few flaws to work out—including coverage issues that caused him to joke that he'd "quit counting" pass interference penalties—and those will be addressed at practice. But he won't go negative for the sake of going negative. That isn't his style. His Tigers are 8–0, and that remains something to be celebrated. They close the regular season with games against Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and South Carolina. They should win all those comfortably, but the way this season has gone, that isn't a guarantee. "We didn't win the division tonight," Swinney said after beating Florida State. "We've got two hands on the steering wheel."
Tigers coaches and players hate all this nitpicking. "People want to see us slip and fall," said quarterback Deshaun Watson, who threw for 378 yards Saturday with two touchdowns and two interceptions and led the Tigers on a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. With the exception of Florida State, Louisville and South Carolina fans—who all would love to see Clemson slip and fall for various reasons—that isn't why everyone else holds the Tigers to such a high standard. To put it in Star Wars terms, Clemson might be the only team that knows where the exhaust port is on Alabama's Death Star and has a pilot who used to bullseye womp rats back home in his T-16. (I have no idea if womp rats are native to Watson's hometown of Gainesville, Ga., but just go with it.)
The College Football Playoff selection committee will release its first rankings on Tuesday. Clemson likely will be No. 2 behind Alabama or No. 3 behind Michigan and Alabama. It doesn't matter either way. The only ranking that matters will be released Dec. 4, and Clemson probably has the easiest path to the playoff of any contender. If the Tigers finally put everything together offensively—think the first two drives of the Florida State game but for four quarters—they are the one team that looks capable of playing toe-to-toe with Alabama. Every other team might need Alabama to play an uncharacteristically bad game. A fully unlocked Clemson could be the only one that could compete with the Tide straight up. As great as Watson can be, Clemson's greatest strength is its defensive line. (Just ask Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois, who might be America's toughest player.) The Tigers could conceivably limit Alabama's running game—quarterback Jalen Hurts and the backs—and force Hurts to beat them with his arm. Meanwhile, the skill-position combo of Watson, tailback Wayne Gallman, 6' 4" receiver Mike Williams, seemingly always open Hunter Renfrow and tight end Jordan Leggett might be capable of stressing a defense that never seems stressed.
But if the Tigers commit five turnovers like they did against Louisville, Alabama probably would put some of those turnovers in the end zone immediately. If they score only 17 points on five regulation red zone trips as they did in an overtime win against NC State on Oct. 15, Alabama would outscore them. And if they do either of these things between now and the playoff, they might not have to worry about playing Alabama at all.
Rather than dwell on the negative, let's frame this discussion in more positive terms. Clemson is getting criticized because it hasn't played anywhere near its ceiling yet. When and if it does, woe unto that poor opponent. The good news now is that these Tigers have learned how to win close games. "Every game has been coming close," freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence said. "So we've kind of been in this situation before and know how to handle it. We know how to face adversity." When Florida State took the lead on a Dalvin Cook touchdown with 3:23 to play Saturday, there was no panic on Clemson's sideline. Watson calmly led the offense on the field and marched it 80 yards in 1:56. Then he came back to the sideline and did a little dance with defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, who took the field and helped seal the win by providing pressure on the successive sacks of Francois that sealed the win.
The Tigers don't care how it looks. They only care that they keep winning. "We're built for this," Swinney said.
They're also built to compete for a national title. But to actually win one, they'll need to stop being a statistical marvel and start dominating.
A random ranking
I've gotten several requests for a Seinfeld-themed ranking, but I didn't want to do the typical Best Episode or Best Ancillary Characters ranking. So, in keeping with the usual theme of this column, I'm going to rank the best Seinfeld food.
1. Kenny Rogers Roasters*
2. The Soup Nazi's turkey chili
3. A marble rye
4. An eclair from the trash
5. Top of the Muffin muffin tops
6. Junior Mints
7. A Big Salad
8. A double dipped chip
9. A Mackinaw peach
10. An eggplant calzone
*Kenny's was as great in real life as Kramer made it seem on the show. I'll never for the life of me understand how Boston Market won that particular franchise war
Projected College Football Playoff bracket
The Crimson Tide had the weekend off, but we'll learn quite a bit more about them this week. LSU is one of the few programs with comparable athletes to Alabama, but the Tigers haven't beaten the Tide since 2011. Will interim coach Ed Orgeron and acting offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger be able to draw up a game plan that gives the Tigers a chance to move the ball? The past two meetings in Baton Rouge have come down to the wire, so this may be Alabama's toughest regular-season challenge. (Though Auburn's rapid improvement has the Iron Bowl looking quite interesting as well.)
On Saturday, the Tigers showed flashes of the potential I wrote about above. If they ever put it all together, they can beat anyone. Even if they don't, they still can beat almost everyone. The problem is they could also slip along the way if they don't start putting down the hammer.
The Wolverines' win in East Lansing didn't feel as close as the 32–23 score. So far, Alabama and Michigan have been the nation's most consistent teams. That consistency is a plus for the Wolverines, but their ceiling doesn't seem as high as Clemson's does. A steady performance the rest of the way doesn't guarantee Michigan a spot in the playoff, but it does give them a great chance to keep winning, beat Ohio State on Nov. 26 and beat (likely Wisconsin) in the Big Ten title game. Jim Harbaugh and his staff have seemingly had little trouble keeping this team focused.
The Huskies finally got a chance to prove themselves against a quality opponent on the road, and they passed the test with a 31–24 win against Utah. The path isn't completely clear for Washington, which must face resurgent USC on Nov. 12 and likely will play Washington State for the Pac-12 North title in the Apple Cup game on Nov. 25. The committee has it pretty easy this week. The question now is what happens if any of these teams loses in the next few weeks. Ohio State and Texas A&M are waiting in the wings. What will make things really interesting is if some of the two-loss teams (LSU, Auburn, Wisconsin) knock off some of the powers down the stretch.
Big Ugly of the Week
This play in which 6' 6", 300-pound Pittsburgh offensive tackle Brian O'Neill pulls and takes an end-around for a five-yard touchdown on Thursday against Virginia Tech might be the most beautiful thing ever drawn.
Of course, the screen pass O'Neill caught for a touchdown against Georgia Tech might be a close second.
1. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher was furious Saturday with several fourth-quarter calls in the Seminoles' loss to Clemson. He was angry that safety Tre Marshall was ejected for using the crown of his helmet to hit Clemson receiver Mike Williams in the head but Clemson linebacker Kendall Joseph was allowed to stay in the game after using the crown of his helmet to hit Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois in the stomach. Fisher was even more upset at an illegal block below the waist call on Seminoles fullback Freddie Stevenson that erased a long Dalvin Cook run. Officials then flagged the Florida State bench for unsportsmanlike conduct as Fisher argued the call. The ACC fined Florida State $20,000 after Fisher's comments.
Replays of the call on Stevenson show that he did hit Clemson's Van Smith from the side below the waist while the ball was outside the tackle box. So the flag was warranted. If it makes Fisher feel any better, officials later missed a blatant facemask by Florida State's Demarcus Christmas on a sack of Watson.
2. The stakes of the Florida State-Clemson game might have been a little different had Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson not thrown this laser beam to beat Virginia earlier Saturday.
3. I'm hesitant to rule any league out of the running for the playoff when that league still has one-loss teams, but things don't look good for the Big 12. West Virginia's loss at Oklahoma State and Baylor's loss at Texas mean the league will not have an undefeated team, and given the way everyone has played this year, it seems highly unlikely the champion will have fewer than two losses. And in a league that didn't exactly cover itself in glory in the out-of-conference schedule, that makes for a tough road to the playoff. Oh, well. At least that 13th data point is coming next year.
4. So what does the win against Baylor mean for embattled Texas coach Charlie Strong? Maybe nothing. Texas is still 4–4. The defense played better Saturday but will have to continue that improvement on a trip to Lubbock. If the Longhorns can win out, Strong still has a chance. But the road won't be easy.
5. Watch as Boise State's undefeated season comes to an end on a safety at Wyoming.
6. While most of the attention on the SEC West this week will go to the Alabama-LSU game, Auburn will try to win its sixth in a row when Vanderbilt comes to Jordan-Hare Stadium. The switch from head coach Gus Malzahn to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee as the primary playcaller has energized the Tigers' offense. In Auburn's past four games, the Tigers have averaged 48 points a game. Lashlee received heavy consideration for the Louisiana-Monroe job last year. This year, he might be in the mix for some even better head coaching jobs.
7. Florida's 24–10 win against Georgia in Jacksonville and Tennessee's 24–21 loss at South Carolina turned the Gators into the favorite to win the SEC East. Tennessee, which is 2–3 in SEC play but beat Florida head-to-head on Sept. 24, can still win the East if it wins out against Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt and Florida loses two of its last three conference games (at Arkansas on Saturday, vs. South Carolina on Nov. 12, at LSU on Nov. 19). If Florida can win in Fayetteville on Saturday, it would have a chance to clinch the east with a win against South Carolina. For this opportunity the Gators can thank former Florida coach Will Muschamp, who may finally have the quarterback he always lacked in Gainesville. The Gamecocks beat the Volunteers in the second start for true freshman Jake Bentley, who is supposed to be playing his senior year at Opelika (Ala.) High this season. Of course, since Muschamp is still being paid buyout money by Florida, the least he can do is win a game that might help the Gators get to Atlanta.
8. There is one other possibility in the SEC East, and it says quite a bit about the strength of the division. If resurgent Kentucky beats Georgia (Saturday) and Tennessee (Nov. 12) and Florida loses two of its last three conference games, the Wildcats would win the East.
While that scenario doesn't speak highly of the division, it does speak well of the job Mark Stoops and his staff have done since we all left Kentucky for dead following season-opening losses to Southern Miss and Florida. The Wildcats were so lifeless against the Gators that it seemed they'd flounder all season, but they have won five of their past six. The only loss is to Alabama, and the Crimson Tide beat everyone. If Kentucky can keep winning, it may be able to earn the chance to lose to Alabama again. That would be huge for a program that has never even sniffed a division title since the league began its current format in 1992.
9. Former Missouri defensive lineman Harold Brantley wound up in the end zone at the end of this wild interception return by Northwest Missouri State.
10. In Charlottesville, what is old is new…
What's Eating Andy?
Monday is Halloween, which means thousands of well-meaning people will try to poison America's children with candy corn. Remember, candy corn is the devil's fruit. Also, if you don't want them, can you send me all of your mini Special Darks?
What's Andy Eating?
Last week's vegetable rankings proved quite controversial, and some of the questions revolved around my No. 2 choice. I placed greens at No. 2 and noted that the group included collard greens and turnip greens. Collard greens are easy to find. They taste great when cooked properly and sprinkled with pepper sauce. But they don't transport me to another time. Turnip greens do. That's why I was so thrilled this summer when I walked into K&J Rib Shack in Montgomery, Ala., and saw turnip greens on the menu.
What's the difference between turnip greens and collard greens? For most, turnip greens are a little bit sweeter. For me, the memories are also a little bit sweeter. We all have those foods and beverages that bring us back to a certain time in our lives. Every time I taste a blueberry Blizzard at Dairy Queen, I think of playing Little League baseball. Our coach took us there after every game, and unless I'd hit a home run—the only way to get a banana split—I had a blueberry Blizzard. Every time I taste turnip greens, I think of helping my grandmother gather fruit and vegetables from her garden in Selma, Ala. As a child, I spent so many sticky summer days running between the rows of turnips, eggplants, squash, green beans, watermelons and cantaloupes. I always volunteered to collect what was ripe because I knew I'd get to eat it later. I had no idea that most of the rest of the country ate collard greens or mustard greens. I thought everyone ate turnip greens, and I thought everyone had a grandmother like Ella Mae Cook who would cook all day and then chide the grandchildren who didn't want a fourth serving of the chicken, rice, beans or greens. (It should be noted that Gramama Cook was always pleased with my consumption patterns. Looking at my current waistline, this might not have been the best praise to seek.) When I smelled the greens at K&J, I found myself back at her kitchen table ready to eat seconds and thirds and fourths.
Those greens at K&J were perfect. They were just as sweet as I remembered, and they took me back 30 years to a time when all I had to worry about was getting all the raw materials to Gramama before He-Man and the Master's of The Universe came on one of the Montgomery channels on the color TV she and my grandfather had just bought to replace the black-and-white that finally petered out.
The ribs at K&J were excellent, too. They were thick and meaty and pulled off the bone with a gentle tug. They didn't need sauce. If I hadn't had to move on to my next stop on my preseason tour, I would have come back for dinner and eaten an entire rack of ribs and a gallon of turnip greens. Then I probably would have pulled up some He-Man on YouTube, because nothing helps turnip greens digest like watching Skeletor get trounced.