CLEMSON | For all of Clemson's faults Saturday night, they were overridden by the trait coach Dabo Swinney has suggested the team has exhibited the entire season.
These were not the same ol' Tigers - especially the ones who annually choked when the ACC title game appeared within reach.
Clemson dropped a fourth-quarter hammer on Florida State, rattling off 19 unanswered points to emerge with a 40-24 victory that keeps the Tigers (6-3, 4-2 ACC) in the Atlantic Division driver's seat.
"We just kept our heads," junior safety DeAndre McDaniel said. "Coach Swinney asked us if we believe in ourselves, and we do."
All that stands in the way of a berth in the Dec. 5 ACC championship in Tampa, Fla., are wins next week at N.C. State (4-5, 1-4) and in the final home game the following week against Virginia (3-6, 2-3).
Clemson and idle Boston College (3-2 in the ACC) are the only Atlantic teams with two losses, and the four other division teams have at least four losses. The Tigers own the tiebreaker advantage on the Eagles, who have remaining contests at Virginia, vs. North Carolina and at Maryland.
"The best thing about this win is we've kind of made it a two-horse race coming around the backstretch, and we've got a little lead," Swinney said.
"But they don't throw the roses on them at the Kentucky Derby coming around the backstretch. You've got to cross the line and finish. We haven't finished yet."
No, but Clemson figures to be the favorite by virtue of having its version of Secretariat in the stable.
Senior running back C.J. Spiller jumped back on the Heisman Trophy radar by eclipsing his school record for all-purpose yardage, set two weeks ago at Miami - the only two games of his career his father has attended.
Spiller finished with 312 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving), netting a career-high 165 rushing yards on 22 carries.
"That game is pretty easy to summarize," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "I thought that Spiller was the difference."
Redshirt freshman quarterback Kyle Parker threw a season-high four touchdowns as Clemson scored at least 38 points for the fourth consecutive contest.
Conversely, the Tigers collected four interceptions off FSU quarterback Christian Ponder, who entered the game with three picks while ranking third nationally in passing yards per game.
All told, the Seminoles (4-5, 2-4) committed five turnovers.
Clemson accrued 483 yards and would not have needed the fourth-quarter flair if not for three scoreless red-zone trips, three missed extra points and two missed field goals inside 40 yards.
"Golly, how many times can you screw it up and still have the chance to win the game?" Swinney said.
"When it came time to where someone's got to win the game in the fourth quarter, our kids showed they are mentally tough and physically tough. We didn't do anything fancy in the fourth quarter. We ran the football, ran it tough, and our kids sucked it up."
The lead exchanged hands for the fifth and final time early in the fourth quarter.
Redshirt freshman safety Rashard Hall intercepted a Ponder pass at the Clemson 36 and tried to lateral it to McDaniel as he crossed midfield. But the lateral zipped past McDaniel and rolled to linebacker Kavell Conner at the Clemson 47, and Conner took it 29 yards to the FSU 24 with 12:08 remaining.
Backup running back Andre Ellington scored the go-ahead, 9-yard touchdown run with 9:37 remaining.
The Tigers then forced a punt after the Seminoles' drive stalled at the FSU 46. Four plays later, Ellington burst for 43 years to the FSU 6. Two plays later, Parker threw across his body for a 3-yard touchdown with 3:34 to go to senior tight end Durrell Barry - his lone catch this season and first since the 2006 Music City Bowl.
McDaniel sealed the deal by intercepting Ponder on the second play of the ensuing drive. It was McDaniel's eighth interception this season, tying Robert O'Neal (1989) and Justin Miller (2002) for the school's single-season record.
Spiller punched in a 5-yard score the next play, briefly flashing a Heisman pose.
Clemson has started showing signs of a swagger, the byproduct of clutch, late triumphs against Miami and FSU. The Tigers snapped a stretch of 12 consecutive games in which they had failed to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter, four of which they lost by a touchdown or less.
"That's what championship teams do," Swinney said. "They find a way to win, take care of business and seize the opportunity."