College Sports

What should ACC football champ Clemson tell conference foes? ‘Thanks for nothing.’

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney accepts the ACC championship trophy

Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney accepts the ACC Championship Game trophy, and gets caught in an orange-and-white confetti storm.
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Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney accepts the ACC Championship Game trophy, and gets caught in an orange-and-white confetti storm.

Congratulations, Clemson — and condolences.

Look, there’s no doubting the Tigers are the class of ACC football. We knew that long before Saturday’s dreary, rain-soaked ACC Championship Game, and what transpired at Bank of America Stadium only confirmed those presumptions.

Clemson ran roughshod — literally, at times — over a hapless Pitt team, ripping off chunks of yardage and sod until finally, mercifully, the clock showed zeroes and the coroner was called.

Clemson 42, Pitt 10.

And that — an offense that mustered just 8 passing yards all game, that thrice turned the ball over, and a defense that allowed the fastest score in conference championship history — was the best opposition the ACC could present for its College Football Playoff-bound darling?

That’s laughable.

Don’t misunderstand me here: Clemson is a terrific football team, and that was on full display Saturday. There’s Travis Etienne, the ACC Player of the Year, who rushed for 156 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries. His speed and strength, even in a muddy, sloppy game, was transcendent.

Then there’s the vaunted defensive line, which Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said postgame has, “at least three first-rounders, maybe four.” Between Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Clelin Ferrell, good luck to any team that tries to run against the Tigers. Pitt, which averaged 232.7 rushing yards per game coming into Saturday night, had to claw for its 192 yards, and it took the Panthers 48 attempts to get them.

And lastly, you’ve got freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who struggled in the rain Saturday but deservedly won ACC Rookie of the Year honors earlier this week.

Are you sensing a theme with Clemson and these postseason awards? Bet you’ll never guess who won Coach of the Year.

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With all that talent, and one of college football’s elite motivators steering the ship in coach Dabo Swinney, it’s no wonder Clemson won the ACC in as dominant a fashion as they did.

“Clemson is the best football team we’ve played so far to this point,” Narduzzi said postgame. “They deserve to be where they are.

“They’ll probably win a national championship, in my opinion.”

Maybe. But if they do, it sure as heck won’t be because the ACC prepared them for it.

Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney has done a terrific job coaching the Tigers to an undefeated record this season, but whoever his team plays next in the College Football Playoff will be their toughest opponent yet. Chuck Burton AP

Blindly, without digging too deep into any statistics or records or all that, who is Clemson’s “best win” against this season? They don’t have a Georgia to show off, like fellow undefeated juggernaut Alabama does — and that’s not counting the Crimson Tide’s other wins against LSU, Mississippi State, and Auburn. They don’t have a Michigan, like Notre Dame and Ohio State do, or even a Texas, like Oklahoma will trot out to the selection committee.

Nope. Instead, they’ve got ... Syracuse? Texas A&M?

Give me a break.

Let’s be frank: Clemson was the king of the ACC this year, but that doesn’t really amount to much. Clemson hasn’t won a game by fewer than 14 points since September. This isn’t a “Clemson is bad” take. More like “The ACC is bad enough that no one knows how good Clemson might actually be.”

The combined record of Clemson’s eight ACC foes? 59-50. That’s a perfectly middle-of-the-road, meh record.

It sure ain’t College Football Playoff material.

Not to lean blindly into statistics, but just consider the strength of schedule for every playoff contender. Georgia’s schedule was third-hardest this season. Alabama’s, fifth. Ohio State 10th, Oklahoma 15th.

Clemson, 18th.

The only viable playoff contender with an easier schedule, you could argue, is Notre Dame with the 28th-toughest ... and yeah, of course, the Fighting Irish are also ACC affiliates in football.

ACC 0, everyone else, 1.

If there is some silver lining to be taken, it’s that No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Notre Dame will offically face off in the Cotton Bowl, while No. 1 Alabama takes on No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

Now, it’s not that winning a conference championship game doesn’t matter. As Swinney astutely pointed out postgame, 11 of the ACC’s 14 schools are going qualify for a bowl game. That’s good, and of course impressive.

And considering the experience Clemson has in previous College Football Playoffs, maybe they don’t need as much week-in, week-out exposure to top teams to prove themselves. They’ve got players with playoff experience, and they’ve got players with national championship rings. That definitely counts for something.

But relying strictly on year-old experience against college football’s elite — and remember, Clemson also lost its playoff semifinal 24-6 to Alabama last season — just isn’t good enough. It’s not Clemson’s fault the rest of their conference is so ... mediocre, but now, it is their problem.

Whoever Clemson is matched up against in the College Football Playoff will immediately be their toughest opponent of the season. That’s not a death sentence, but it is a reality check.

And if you think a freshman quarterback and a load of underclassmen are going to just waltz into the postseason and dominate college football’s bluebloods like they have every middling ACC foe this season, you’re making a big bet on talent over experience.

On Friday, the day before the championship game, Narduzzi lauded Clemson as the benchmark of ACC football. He complimented their coaching, their players, and said outright that there’s a gap between the Tigers and every other team in the conference.

Now that he’s had a firsthand taste, just how substantial a gap are we talking?

“I don’t have a measuring stick on there,” Narduzzi said. “I guess it’s 42-10. That’s where the gap is.”

Really, what Saturday’s undressing proved was two-fold. One, that Clemson is clearly the best, most consistent football program in the ACC, and one of the best in the entire nation. The Tigers have a roster filled with future NFL players, and that talent is more than capable of carrying them to a second national championship in three years.

But to get to that point — and here’s the second thing that’s abundantly clear — the Tigers are going to have to defeat two opponents substantially, significantly better than anyone else they’ve faced.

Like Narduzzi said, Clemson could very well win the national title and no one would be surprised.

But if they do? It won’t be because the ACC did them any favors preparation-wise. Not even close.