CLEMSON — There are 130 FBS programs in college football, all of varying degrees of ability. Many believe Clemson to be the best of the group. Charlotte, as illuminated Saturday, is definitively not.
The polarities the two teams occupy in the college football world were apparent at Death Valley, as the Tigers earned a 52-10 blowout win.
Coach Dabo Swinney's team simply outplayed the 49ers in all facets of the game. Charlotte struggled to keep up. Charlotte struggled to do much of anything, really, even as coach Dabo Swinney emptied Clemson's bench and the Tigers outgained the visitors, 466-216.
The 49ers' season will continue. They'll be back in front of their home fans next week, hosting Florida Atlantic in a key Conference USA matchup. Perhaps they'll scrape together six wins and qualify for a bowl game. Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, Charlotte won't soon forget what happened Saturday night against the defending national champions.
The win marked Clemson's 14th straight win by 14 points or more.
What went right
Clemson got to rest its starters for much of the game Saturday, thanks in part to a dominant start. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence set the tone, completing 7 of 9 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown. Running back Travis Etienne recorded 61 rushing yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, and linebackers Isaiah Simmons had James Skalski tied for a team-high six tackles.
The Tigers led 17-0 after the first quarter and 38-3 at halftime. With the game out of reach, Swinney got to rest his key players, which could benefit the Tigers later in the season against more challenging opponents.
What went wrong
This is being nitpicky, but that's what happens when the Tigers play a Conference USA team they were favored to beat by 42 points.
Late in the third quarter, Will Swinney, the coach's oldest son, lined up to receive a punt with Clemson holding a 42-point lead. The 48-yard punt slipped through the wide receiver's hands, and a 49ers player decked Will to the turf as Charlotte recovered the loose ball. Three players later, Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds rushed 6 yards for the visitors' first — and only — touchdown of the game. The few 49ers fans in attendance mustered some cheers.
Clemson's first play of the game didn't go as planned. Etienne carried the ball, ran 2 yards and was tackled, the ball popping out of his hands. A 49ers player picked it up with a clear path to the end zone. Could it really be happening?
The officials ruled Etienne had been down before the ball came loose, giving Clemson the ball back. Lawrence then promptly skied the ball to wide receiver Tee Higgins, who beat his defender and galloped into the end zone for a 58-yard score. Higgins jumped and punched the air. Death Valley erupted. The 49ers, not two minutes into the game, were finished.
The Tigers hit the road next week to take on North Carolina (2-2), which aims to bounce back after losses to Wake Forest and Appalachian State. Tar Heels coach Mack Brown was one of Swinney's mentors when he first took over Clemson.