Every week, Dabo Swinney refers to his team’s upcoming game is “the biggest of the season.”
This week, he’s right.
Saturday night’s showdown against Florida State in Tallahassee looms large – not necessarily in terms of the Atlantic Coast Conference race, mind you, but in terms of the impending College Football Playoff.
Clemson gained the upper hand in the ACC title chase back on Oct. 1 when it survived Louisville and Lamar Jackson, 42-36, in what may very well turn out to be the most riveting 60 minutes of college football to be played this season.
That victory, combined with Florida State’s losses to Louisville and North Carolina, provided Clemson the luxury of being able to lose against the Seminoles this weekend, yet still win the division and clinch an ACC Championship Game berth by winning out against a not-so-murderous row of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest.
That’s all fine and dandy, but the Tigers have bigger fish to fry, and that is what makes Saturday night’s journey into Doak Campbell Stadium a rewarding yet tense proposition.
Doak Campbell is never a fun place to play, but the stadium has proven to be nothing less than a House of Horrors for the Tigers over the last decade.
The Seminoles are 6-1 in their last seven games against Clemson in Tallahassee, and the Tigers’ last win there came in 2006 when James Davis scored twice and Clemson held FSU to 204 total yards behind Duane Coleman and the late Gaines Adams in a 27-20 win.
So yeah, it’s been a while.
“We’ve played well there in spurts the last several year,” Swinney said Tuesday. “But you’re going to win at somebody else’s place, you’ve got to finish.”
Which is precisely the Tigers’ intent.
Finishing unbeaten in the regular season is one thing, but running the postseason table is quite another. And to assure itself a spot at that table, Clemson can ill afford a slip-up against the Seminoles.
Ohio State’s loss at Penn State Saturday night magnified the devastating impact a late-season loss can have when it comes playoff aspirations.
“We understand that in college football you have perform each and every week, no matter who you’re playing,” Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson said. “Anybody can be beat.
“This past weekend showed that. Penn State was the better team Saturday night. It’s funny, because each week it doesn’t matter how good you’ve been previously, you’ve got to be good that week. That’s the way college football is.”
Ohio State plummeted six spots to No. 8 in the Amway Coaches Poll, which could leave the Buckeyes on the outside if the remaining seven unbeaten teams ranked in the Top 10 continue their success.
Clemson was leapfrogged by Michigan, presumably thanks to style points. The Wolverines have won by a combined 119-8 the past two Saturdays against outmanned teams, but big point totals often have big impacts on poll voters.
For 7-0 and No. 3 ranked Clemson, the refrain should be “just win, baby.”
If the Tigers do, things will fall into place.
If they stumble, things could get dicey, as a loss to a lower-ranked Florida State that already has two league losses could send the Tigers plummeting in the polls and to a fate from which they might not recover.
“I don’t know what it is, but it seems like Clemson’s just not one of the favorites,” Clemson senior safety Jadar Johnson said. “I don’t think we could get into the playoff with a loss just because they’re so biased against Clemson. Teams like Alabama, Ohio State – they could have a loss and still get in the playoffs. I just don’t think they would do it for Clemson.”
Perhaps not. But there are plenty of other teams out there who would gladly swap positions with the Tigers, because being in control of your destiny this late in a season is a rather desirable place to be.
It’s simple. Win and you’re in.
That’s just the way college football is.