- The Tigers looked impressive in dispatching their in-state rivals, reminding the nation exactly how good the defending national champions can be.
If there was any lingering doubt about Clemson’s viability as a national championship contender at the end of the regular season, the Tigers erased it during a trip to South Carolina on Saturday night. The Tigers crunched the Gamecocks, 34–10, for their fourth consecutive win over their in-state rivals and their fifth consecutive win since a mid-October loss to Syracuse.
This game loomed as a troubling look-ahead spot for Clemson. The Tigers, a week removed from pasting FCS foe The Citadel 61–3 in Death Valley, clinched the ACC Atlantic Division when they beat Florida State at home earlier this month. That win set up a meeting with Coastal Division champion Miami in the conference title game in Charlotte on Dec. 2.
Clemson was going to play the Hurricanes no matter what happened in Columbia on Saturday, but a loss would have imperiled its College Football Playoff hopes. Though the Tigers still would have had a decent shot to get in with a win over the Hurricanes as a two-loss Power 5 league champion, a late stumble could have opened the door for other teams.
Instead, Clemson plowed through an eight-win SEC opponent on the road without much fuss. Quarterback Kelly Bryant delivered another solid performance, completing 23 of his 34 passing attempts for 272 yards and two touchdowns against one interception. (The junior has tossed only one two picks since early October, and six the entire season.)
The Tigers flexed their muscles defensively by stifling South Carolina signal-caller Jake Bentley. The sophomore connected on only 16 of his 29 throws for 126 yards and failed to consistently threaten the Tigers downfield. Clemson also picked Bentley off twice, one of which was a pick six that put the Tigers up 7–0 late the first quarter.
That score turned out to be the beginning of a thorough beatdown. And by the time Clemson freshman Travis Etienne scored a five-yard rushing touchdown late in the third quarter for the Tigers’ final points of the game, what had seemed like a treacherous road matchup for Clemson had turned into a stress-free tuneup for its most important clash of the season. The Tigers are ready for Miami.
The ACC is definitely sending at least one team to the playoff, but the Hurricanes’ shocking slip-up at unranked Pittsburgh on Friday effectively squelched any chance the conference had of claiming half the spots in the national semifinals. The ACC championship bout now shapes up as a virtual play-in game for the final four.
The latest evidence favors Clemson. The Tigers will be coming off an utter smackdown of a quality opponent, whereas Miami will need to recover from being upended by an inferior foe. Clemson also has more recent experience playing in high-stakes games than Miami, which is heading into its first ACC title tilt since joining the league in 2004.
The Tigers have not generated as much excitement as would be expected for a one-loss team that won it all last season, but their win on Saturday suggested that they ought to be taken more seriously as a national championship contender.