COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Kelly Bryant knew before kickoff. He had seen the score of the Alabama-Auburn game on the videoboard at Williams-Brice Stadium during warm-ups Saturday, and he understood what the Crimson Tide's loss meant. At halftime of Clemson's 34-10 victory over South Carolina, however, Dabo Swinney made sure the rest of his team was in on the secret, too.
No. 1 Alabama went down. No. 2 Miami was upset. And suddenly the No. 3 Tigers are poised to finish the 2017 regular season in the same spot they finished the 2016 playoff: at the top of the rankings.
"I told them," Swinney said. "That's something that is awesome. These guys have worked to stay in the hunt, and this is the time of year when it matters. We're almost to December. It matters."
It's an interesting statement coming from Swinney, who in the past two seasons has largely shrugged off the College Football Playoff selection committee's rankings, just so long as his team was in the top four. But if the Deshaun Watson era was about ignoring the hype, this season's rise to No. 1 -- assuming Clemson gets there when the poll is released Tuesday -- is something of a benchmark for a new team that spent most of the season thumbing its nose at critics who suggested the Tigers couldn't match last season's heroics.
"People questioned me, questioned this team after we lost so many people," Bryant said. "Not many people thought we'd be in the position we're in. But we'll keep the pedal to the metal, keep pushing."
To watch Clemson (11-1) rout rival South Carolina on Saturday night was a reminder of why Swinney's crew is so dangerous. While the two teams ahead of the Tigers in the polls fell in embarrassing fashion, Clemson played arguably its most complete game of the season.
Bryant's recent struggles in the passing game now seem like a distant memory. He connected on deep balls, such as a 40-yard bomb to Tee Higgins. He connected on quick throws, such as a short pass that Hunter Renfrow turned into a 61-yard dash to the end zone. And with the bulk of the fourth quarter remaining, Bryant gave way to backup Hunter Johnson.
And the defense? Well, No. 24 South Carolina (8-4) once again found absolutely nothing against Brent Venables' crew.
The Tigers opened the scoring with a Ryan Carter pick-six. They tormented South Carolina QB Jake Bentley, who had raised eyebrows after last season's blowout loss by suggesting the Gamecocks weren't far off from matching Clemson. Until Bryant threw a pick from his own 41, South Carolina didn't run a single play in Clemson territory.
It was an emphatic statement this weekend for a team among the committee's top four.
The win sets Clemson up as a potential No. 1 in the nation for its date with Miami in next Saturday's ACC championship game. It also would make for a strong case for a playoff berth, even if the Tigers don't win.
Saturday's victory was Clemson's seventh over a bowl-eligible team (and Florida State could make it eight next weekend). It was the fourth time Clemson toppled a ranked team on the road -- three of those wins coming by double digits. It was an exclamation point on a résumé the Tigers have been building since they beat Auburn -- suddenly the hottest team in the country -- in Week 2.
Still, that's an argument Swinney would rather not have. There is a far easier path to the playoff, and Saturday's victory was another showcase for a Clemson team that appears to be clicking on all cylinders headed into its showdown with a reeling Miami.
"We're starting to play our best football," Swinney said. "You want to have confidence, you want to have depth, you want to have good health, and you want to feel like you have some rhythm and some momentum. It feels that way."