Clemson North Carolina Football (copy)

Coach Dabo Swinney said the Tigers weren't panicking after Saturday's tight win at North Carolina. 

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Clemson is no longer the No. 1 team in the nation, and not because of anything exceptional the new top team did. 

Alabama merely did what it was supposed to do Saturday, rolling past Mississippi, 59-31. It was enough for the AP Top 25 voters to flip the Crimson Tide, the previous No. 2 team, with Clemson, especially considering the Tigers' near disastrous defeat on the road.

The Tigers escaped North Carolina with a 21-20 win, only after stopping the Tar Heels' 2-point conversion attempt with under two minutes remaining. It shouldn't have come to that. North Carolina (2-3, 1-1 ACC) is better than it was last season, and new coach Mack Brown has lifted spirits around the program. But Clemson (5-0, 3-0) is too talented to be playing close games against ACC opponents. The voters acted accordingly.

Falling to No. 2 is far from a death sentence. Clemson is still likely to qualify for a fifth straight College Football Playoff. But the new ranking, if things hold for the rest of the season, means the Tigers could end up playing their national semifinal game at the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., instead of at the Peach Bowl in nearby Atlanta.

It's a small dip in the polls, sure, and it's unlikely Swinney spent his Sunday panicking. There's plenty of season left. But for a program with dynastic dreams, it's a step in the wrong direction. 

Here are 7 takeaways from Clemson' too-close win at North Carolina. 

The Tigers are fallible

Clemson had rarely been challenged over the first four weeks of the season. The Tigers allowed Texas A&M to score first in Week 2, surrendering a field goal, but otherwise hadn't trailed against any of its opponents.

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell needed just four plays to put a dent in that, finding wide receiver Dyami Brown for a 40-yard touchdown pass with 13:15 left in the first quarter. Brown shrugged after he crossed into the end zone. 

Clemson struck back early in the second quarter, when running back Travis Etienne rushed for a 13-yard touchdown, but then Howell found wide receiver Beau Corrales for a 10-yard score. Again, Clemson trailed by seven.

A 3-yard touchdown run from quarterback Trevor Lawrence with 33 seconds left in the half knotted the score at 14, and around the nation people started paying more attention to what was happening in Chapel Hill: Upset alert?

The back-and-forth nature of the contest was proof of Clemson's fallibility, Coach Dabo Swinney said.

"I know we're supposed to just show up and beat everybody by double digits, and all that, but this is college football," Swinney said. 

Mistakes need to be rectified

Swinney credited North Carolina's performance, but also acknowledged his players made too many mistakes. Clemson was whistled for six penalties for a total of 30 yards, including having too many players on the field one possession.  

The offensive line was whistled for multiple first starts, which Swinney attributed to "a lack of discipline."

The Tar Heels took advantage and it nearly cost the Tigers.

Tee Higgins comes up big

Wide receiver Tee Higgins finished with game highs in catches (six) and receiving yards (129), including the go-ahead 38-yard touchdown reception with 9:54 left in the game.

"Trevor put the ball up where I could make a play, like he always does," Higgins said.

Lawrence didn't have any interceptions Saturday, but he was far from dominant, throwing for 206 yards on 18-of-30 passing and rushing for 57 yards on 11 carries with two total touchdowns.

Higgins provided a bright light for Clemson on offense, with four of his receptions coming for first downs.

Higgins, a junior, is second in the ACC with 505 receiving yards this season and has established himself as Clemson's most consistent offensive weapon. 

Punter Will Spiers was on point

Clemson was 8 for 15 on third downs Saturday, meaning there were plenty of opportunities for punter Will Spiers. The redshirt senior did not disappoint.

Spiers recorded 229 total yards on five punts, compiling an average distance of 45.8 yards. Virginia Tech's Oscar Bradburn leads the ACC in punting yards per game average (47.6). 

On a day that kicker B.T. Potter missed his lone field goal attempt — a 40-yarder — Spiers consistently pushed North Carolina into deeper field position.

Trevor Lawrence is out of the Heisman Trophy conversation

Lawrence was viewed as a favorite to compete for the Heisman Trophy entering the season, but the sophomore's numbers don't stack up with some of the nation's other elite players five weeks into the season.

The quarterback is 84 for 136 for 1,131 passing yards and eight touchdowns with five interceptions. A big performance from Jalen Hurts on Saturday boosted the Oklahoma quarterback's case, and the senior has now thrown for 1,295 yards and 12 touchdowns with just one interception, in addition to rushing for 443 yards and five touchdowns on 47 attempts. Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa has similarly impressive numbers: 1,718 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and no interceptions.

There's plenty of season left to be played, but at this point, Lawrence has fallen on the Heisman favorites list. 

Brent Venables triumphs again

Clemson linebacker James Skalski called defensive coordinator Brent Venables a "mastermind" earlier in the month, and he's far from the only person in the sport to hold that view.

North Carolina's defense was more successful than Venables would've liked — the Tar Heels were 2-for-3 on fourth down and rushed for 146 yards — but in the end, the Tigers' defense shut the door on the Tar Heels' upset bid.

Skalski said the Tigers had a good feeling North Carolina was going to run an option on the 2-point conversion attempt. The premonition proved right, as Howell rolled right and opted to take it himself. The Clemson defense was ready. 

Good time for open date

Teams don't get to choose when their open dates happen, but this coming week is as good a time as any for Clemson after the heart-pounding win.

With the break, the Tigers can regroup and evaluate what went wrong in Chapel Hill. They can clean up the penalties. They can take some time to take in the fact that they are no longer the nation's top-ranked team, and use that as motivation. A potential matchup with Alabama won't happen for months, but until then, the Tigers can look to a familiar rival for inspiration. 

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland graduate.

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