- Clemson now controls its own destiny in the ACC after turning it on late against the Wolfpack for a key win over a division rival.
In the first half of Clemson’s 38–31 win over NC State Saturday, the Tigers looked shakier than usual—especially on defense, where they allowed the Wolfpack 248 yards of total offense and 21 points. Going into the break, Clemson was down, 21–17, and the game was back-and-forth throughout the rest of the evening, with the Tigers pulling out to a third-quarter lead and the Wolfpack threatening until the last second.
But it was that last second—or the last few—that mattered, and in it, both Clemson and NC State reverted to the teams they’ve been in recent years in this rivalry. Dabo Swinney’s team was stout on defense, holding off a potentially game-winning or game-tying drive and eventually picking off NC State quarterback Ryan Finley to end the game. Dave Doeren’s squad, just as it was last year, ended up robbed, the victim of heartbreak at the hands of Clemson.
In 2017, a pick. In 2016, a missed field goal to end regulation and a Clemson touchdown in overtime. A very good team the past two seasons, NC State hasn’t been quite good enough to beat Clemson—or by proxy play spoiler in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. The Tigers’ fate is in their hands alone at this point, and with two out of three remaining games on their schedule being played against nonconference opponents, all Clemson must do to clinch the division is beat Florida State next week.
Clemson’s all-but-clinch cements the fact that for the third consecutive season, it’s the best team in its division (and probably the best in the ACC). Apart from a stumble against Syracuse, the Tigers have been pretty close to perfect this year, proving that they can stay among college football’s elite even without quarterback Deshaun Watson. Kelly Bryant passed for 191 yards on Saturday, throwing a touchdown and an interception, and the Tigers have established themselves as a team that can win even with a quarterback who’s good but not quite (or not yet) great.
NC State, despite the loss, is still in the midst of putting together its best season this decade and the most promising showing since Doeren took over. There’s a sense that the Wolfpack are still establishing themselves, but with a roster of veterans, that might not be the case. Finley is a redshirt junior, but much of the vaunted NC State defense is set to graduate this spring. This season may have been the Wolfpack’s best shot at winning their division, but the ACC is still Clemson’s conference. Should NC State have pulled off the win Saturday, it would have achieved little more than getting a slightly worse team into the ACC title game—and killing Clemson’s playoff hopes.
For the ACC, Saturday’s outcome was optimal. Miami remains undefeated going into its prime-time game against Virginia Tech, but Clemson is still the conference’s best hope for a playoff bid. Besides Florida State, the Tigers get the Citadel and South Carolina to round out the season, poised to head to Charlotte with one loss and a reasonable expectation to be among the final four teams playing this season.