Monday, October 11, 2021

Clemson has work to do before Clemson has played itself into playoff position

Clemson’s frustration is understandable, but the Tigers’ desire to repeat their feat will draw them closer to the playoff bracket

The win was the first on a neutral site against Alabama, but it doesn’t change Clemson’s path in order to defend their national title.

After two losses, there is still a battle for college football immortality in the Tigers’ sights. Once the storm that engulfed Auburn and its ensuing hangover dissipates, Clemson is in a fight for the title. The Tigers are still a credible contender to become the fourth team to repeat as national champions, and with a likely Georgia loss, the path to the playoff is clear.

The Tigers showed why they represent not only the best ACC team, but also the best in the country. Clemson could have won Saturday if the football was close enough. Chad Kelly missed a big third down on fourth-and-3 from the Clemson 27, and Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs took advantage.

The Clemson fans, sometimes known as the group of experts, eagerly expected their team to pull it out for another national title. By seeing all of these silver linings it is possible to end up disappointed instead.

The story of Clemson’s season to date has been one of inconsistency. The Tigers have struggled and outplayed three of their four opponents in the same fashion.

But, for the most part, they have dominated all opponents when it matters most, defeating Auburn, and Notre Dame to all of the knowledge that this only means the Tigers would have to win two more games in the second half of the season.

When the Tigers got to Alabama the outcome was still in doubt as Kelly connected with Jerry Jeudy for a late touchdown. Later in the game the Tigers kept pace, drove deep into Alabama territory and threw three consecutive incompletions after recovering an Alabama fumble inside the 5-yard line.

While others may have allowed Clemson to get away with one late mistake, Clemson’s coach Dabo Swinney did not.

“What we expected from them and [what] we have to play for is winning the championship,” he said after the game. “And we didn’t.”

This is also a team that has been in this position before. Two years ago, an unimpressive and relatively meaningless win against Troy in early October sparked a roaring comeback in the second half and ended up a national championship.

The Tigers came close to repeating as champions, with the same strategy they used then: get back to the basics of football. Then the weather got inclement, several of their players left the team early for the NFL draft and, despite being 10-1, Clemson went to a three-game losing streak. The Tigers then knew they had to play to their potential and capitalize on any mistakes that would occur in this huge game.

Their goal this time, the same as the last time, is to win it all. Alabama coach Nick Saban’s team has been the gold standard since his first season, winning two straight titles and seven of the last eight. After losing to Clemson last year, the Crimson Tide dropped their last two. The week after beating the Tigers, Alabama defeated Mississippi State by 52 points.

There was reason to be optimistic that Alabama would win its conference, but the Alabama team that showed up Saturday was far from the one that dominated conference opponents. Without Jalen Hurts and in the spotlight in Death Valley, Alabama sputtered. After a 45-40 win, which was eerily similar to the one against Clemson in the 2015 Orange Bowl when the Tide went into the next week undefeated and lost to Ohio State, it became clear that this Alabama team has as much vulnerability as the one that was in the Tigers’ crosshairs in 2013.

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