After his team’s 21–20 victory over North Carolina Saturday evening, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN that his team had been outplayed and out-coached. Such was the case throughout the back-and-forth contest, though the near-upset by the Tar Heels ultimately came down to a backfired decision by Mack Brown.
North Carolina led for the majority of the game’s first half, and Clemson played from behind for the first time since the first quarter of Week 2, against Texas A&M, when it operated at a three-point deficit for barely more than three minutes. Against the Tar Heels, the Tigers took their first lead in the fourth quarter, and even that didn’t hold long. North Carolina answered on the next drive, chewing up 8:36 of game clock while traveling 75 yards into the end zone.
And after Javonte Williams plowed into the end zone, Brown had a decision to make. An extra point would have tied the game and given Clemson and its high-powered offense 1:17 to try to avoid overtime. A two-point conversion would give the Tar Heels a chance to win in regulation. Brown elected to go for two and failed. Clemson remained undefeated. North Carolina lost a chance for a season-defining win—when it had no reason to believe it wouldn’t have had a shot in overtime.
Yes, Clemson is the better team, ranked No. 1 in the country, with one of the best three quarterbacks in the game under center and a brick wall of a defense. So yes, finding a way to win rather than prolong a tie made a certain amount of sense for the Tar Heels. But on a day when the Tigers looked, well, off, Brown’s decision wasn’t the right one. North Carolina had held its own, and there was no reason to believe it couldn’t in overtime.
With Brown’s decision, Clemson has a chance to hold onto its No. 1 ranking, though Alabama’s 59–31 win over Ole Miss might give the Crimson Tide the boost they need to snare the top spot in the rankings for the first time in 2019. No matter what, Clemson’s playoff hopes are still very much alive, and it can move on from the game without too many regrets. No error the Tigers committed appeared anything like an aberration; they’d been sloppy in moments, but the game was hardly a breakdown. A Travis Etienne fumble in the second quarter set up North Carolina’s second touchdown. A first-quarter missed field goal didn’t help. But Trevor Lawrence took care of the ball, and North Carolina only racked up 290 yards of total offense—though Clemson looked unexpectedly porous against the run, allowing North Carolina 146 yards on the ground.
In the end, Clemson never had the spark to pull away. It didn’t recover a turnover (though its defensive line applied solid pressure to North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell), and its offense appeared sluggish and incapable of ripping off the big plays; a 38-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins was the unit’s longest of the day.
Whether Alabama ultimately leapfrogs Clemson when the rankings are released Sunday is ultimately inconsequential. The Tigers are off next week and should ride a manageable schedule through the rest of the regular season. They have no more ranked opponents, as of now, and a Nov. 16 game against Wake Forest at home may be their toughest looming test. What Clemson should worry about most is whether it can avoid playing down to the level of its future opponents.