Maybe it’s indicative of the leveled playing field in college football that a team with 24 turnovers – 10 in its last three games – rises to No. 1 in the nation and will ek play for its conference championship.
That’s an observation, not a criticism.
Clemson might not be the best team in the game, but it’s hard to argue against one that beat every team on its schedule. If it beats North Carolina for the ACC Championship, it’ll be in the College Football Playoff with a chance to win the national title.
That might rub against the grain of some South Carolina fans after Saturday’s game in Williams-Brice Stadium, but that’s the reality. A team whose coach bailed midway through the season, a team that won three games and lost last week to The Citadel played a potential national champion to five points.
South Carolina wasn’t supposed to be in the game. An 18-point underdog, the Gamecocks trailed 28-10 in the third quarter. Instead of playing like road kill, they pushed Clemson to the end.
Clemson heaved a sigh of relief and made a hasty retreat to the Upstate, glad it won’t face another team with nothing to lose. Coach Dabo Swinney was glad to be shed of the game. He won at Williams-Brice Stadium for the first time as a head coach.
“I’ve walked into that locker room a couple of times sick to my stomach,” he said. “A couple years down here I thought we had the better team.”
Clemson was the better team, nobody with any sense would debate that point. But South Carolina was able to hang close largely because of issues with turnovers that reared its ugly head again. In half its games this season, Clemson has committed more turnovers than its opponent.
“When we win the turnover margin we’re going to kill somebody,” Swinney said after Clemson lost three fumbles, which makes 10 turnovers in three games.
The first game might have been an aberration, the second a coincidence but the third would seem to be a trend.
“It’s just unbelievable,” he said. “We make it real hard.”
Most of the game, quarterback Deshaun Watson made if look easy. He completed 20 of 27 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown and ran for 114 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries.
Swinney believes Watson is the best player in the game, not only for the big numbers and the ability to make plays in critical moments, but because he seems suited for the big stage. Another big game against the Tar Heels and he’s a lock for the Heisman Trophy presentation in New York City where he’ll shimmer in the bright lights of the big city.
Though it didn’t bite them, Watson and Wayne Gallman butchered a handoff in the first quarter, the first of the three. The turnovers weren’t because of some perceived pressure.
“No,” Swinney said. “They all know what’s in front of them. They all know what this opportunity represents. These are competitors. There’s nothing to be nervous about. It’s just football. If we get beat, we get beat.
“Shoot, let’s don’t have any regrets. Let’s play. That’s what we do.”
Swinney and his players recognize this may not last, that even if they win three more, sometime next season the nation’s longest winning streak – now 15 – will end.
“If we get beat we’re going to be a tough out. It ain’t going to be because we were tiptoeing through the daisies,” Swinney said. “We’re going to play, and we’re going to have fun with it.”
Few expected Clemson to be here, undefeated after 12 games. Fewer still expected Clemson to be on the doorstep of a national championship. Swinney’s slogan for the season was 15 for ’15, “make them print tickets for 15 games.”
“Sometimes we may not play great. Sometimes things happen,” he said. “We’re going to show up and play. We’ve got bigger things to do.”