CLEMSON — The season began and ballots were cast. Deshaun Watson and several key cogs were gone from Clemson. All eyes turned to Florida State.
With 118 first-place votes in July, the media emphatically declared the following: Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles would win the conference, then likely make a push for the College Football Playoff. Florida State would own the ACC.
But college football can be unforgiving and Florida State lost its starting quarterback, Deondre Francois, and then its rhythm early in the season. Meanwhile, Clemson has been better than expected with Kelly Bryant at quarterback. So Saturday night, when the final seconds ticked off the clock at Memorial Stadium, it was Clemson celebrating the opportunity so many thought would belong to the Seminoles.
The Tigers are headed to the ACC Championship game. An emotional 31-14 win did the trick in an Atlantic Division-clincher.
"I don't think many people picked us to win the ACC this year. Probably very few. I'm glad our team didn't get that memo," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "So many questions coming into this season. To be here, three divisions in a row and six out of nine years, just really proud."
Clemson, a 16-point favorite, covered that spread in the first half alone when the Tigers trotted into halftime with a 17-0 advantage. Bryant muscled his way into the end zone on a 2-yard run, freshman running back Travis Etienne broke loose for a 28-yard touchdown run up the middle and kicker Alex Spence added a 26-yard field goal.
But in the second half, a struggling Florida State offense found some life and found itself down by just three points with about nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter. The Seminoles scored their first touchdown of the night when junior running back Jacques Patrick ran in the end zone for a 3-yard score with about a minute left in the third, making the score 17-7. Patrick was set up after freshman quarterback James Blackman connected with receiver Nyqwan Murray on a 39-yard gain. The Seminoles scored again when Blackman found Ryan Izzo for 60 yards and suddenly it was 17-14.
A Clemson fumble gave the Seminoles the ball back with 6:46 to play and down by three with plenty of time to pull off an upset that would destroy Clemson's College Football Playoff hopes. But Clemson safety Van Smith came up with an interception — his first of the season — and the Tigers took control, scoring touchdowns on runs from Etienne and Adam Choice in the closing minutes.
"Not many people picked us to be in this position but we knew what we had in the offensive room and also as a team with what type of guys we had coming back to school here," Bryant said. "We were just ready to step up into the role and embrace it as well."
When the game ended, thousands of Clemson students and fans rushed the field while the stadium's jumbotron lit up with the obvious: "Charlotte Bound." DJ Khaled's "All I Do Is Win" blasted over the speakers and two hours after everyone had cleared out, a group of workers cleaning up trash started a Clemson chant among themselves in an empty Memorial Stadium.
The obvious question for Clemson moving forward is how the Tigers will fare in the ACC title game and if they will make their third playoff appearance in as many years. Clemson fumbled three times, the defense left the Seminoles wide open down field and Clemson had seven penalties for 80 yards. To keep the playoff in sight, first, Clemson has to knock off The Citadel, its FCS opponent that should cause no issues. Then comes 7-3 rival South Carolina in Columbia before the ACC Championship game. The Tigers will play Miami in that ACC Championship game, a team that clinched the Coastal Division before it ever kicked off its matchup with Notre Dame on Saturday night. The Hurricanes, too, are looking to make a playoff run of their own.
"We never set out to be the national champion. That really has never been a goal. That's just a byproduct of what can happen when you really focus daily," Swinney said. "We wanted to be a consistent program that year in and year out had a chance. Just kind of be in the hunt. Because if you’re in the mix, you've always got a shot. And that’s what we’ve become. We’ll see how far we go this year. Who knows?"