Dabo Swinney didn’t watch NC State’s 33-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds of regulation on Saturday. Instead, he watched the student section behind the upright, waiting to see them react.
The ball went up, sailed wide to the right, and the crowd erupted.
“And I thought, you’re telling me there’s a chance,” Swinney recalled afterward.
Swinney had a good idea his team would prevail after that, though there were still a few hiccups before the Tigers’ 24-17 overtime win became official. But he’s been through this before. This entire season, it seems, has been one escape act after another.
There was Auburn’s Hail Mary that fell incomplete and Troy’s fourth-quarter comeback that fell short and Lamar Jackson’s fourth-down completion that nearly won a game for Louisville had James Quick not fallen out of bounds a half-yard shy of the marker.
Those late escapes have now become so common, they’re almost expected. In fact, it all feels a little familiar, like the last ACC team to make a run to the national championship game and return the bulk of its talent.
Go back two years to the 2014 Florida State team that was fresh off a BCS title with Jameis Winston and a cast of NFL talent around him, and there’s a similar road map of self-inflicted wounds, close calls and, ultimately, ugly wins. And like this year’s Clemson squad -- down to fourth in the latest AP poll -- that Seminoles team earned more critics with each narrow escape, dropping in the polls week after week.
And the lesson from both seasons, according to Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables, is the same.
“Winning is hard,” Venables said. “There’s all kinds of ways you can win, and fortunately they don’t put an asterisk by it. They all count the same.”
Winning certainly has been tough for Clemson this year, but the same can’t be said for Alabama (winning margin of 30.4 points per game), Michigan (39.7), Ohio State (36.5), Washington (35.3) or Baylor (26.5). They’ve made it all look easy, and so Clemson’s string of near-misses has the Tigers playing defense against the critics.
“We were one of the best teams in the country last year, so all eyes are on us,” Deshaun Watson said after Saturday’s game. “We’ve just got to continue to win. It’s not a beauty pageant. They’re not all going to be blowouts.”
Of course, Florida State felt the same -- and last year’s Ohio State team also followed a similar path -- but the similarities really end there.
The 2013 Florida State team was as dominant as any in recent college football history, but 2014 was filled with problems. Their turnover margin dropped markedly, the defense collapsed often, their margin of victory was cut by more than half -- but the Seminoles kept winning.
Clemson, too, has kept winning, but the Tigers’ numbers really aren’t drastically different from last season’s first seven games. They’re scoring about two fewer points per game and allowing about one extra, but their opposition has been far superior to what the Tigers faced in their first seven games a year ago. Clemson has coughed up a couple of extra turnovers, but it’s also had fewer three-and-outs. The red zone production has been worse, but Clemson also has enjoyed eight more drives into the red zone this season.
There have been strong points and mistakes, and certainly the Clemson coaching staff would like to see less of the latter.
“The adversity is something you have to embrace because it really forces us to lean on one another,” Venables said. “And that’s what good teams do -- they do get better, they do correct mistakes.”
Clemson has a bye to start correcting mistakes. Next up on the docket is, fittingly, Florida State.
And while the similarities between this year’s Clemson team and those 2014 Seminoles may be in perception only, there is one big overlap. That FSU team had a giant target on its back as the kings of the ACC. The same can be said for Clemson this year. They’ve seen formations in games they’d not seen on tape, faced teams more motivated than they’d been in previous games, weathered storms that simply didn’t exist a year ago as the Tigers charged toward the mountaintop.
There’s a big difference between chasing the goal and defending it. The latter might be a lot harder and -- aside from Alabama -- most teams don’t make it look nearly as pretty.
“It’s Clemson. Everybody wants to beat Clemson, and we’re going to get everyone’s best shot,” Watson said. “Everyone knows we’re one of the best teams in the country, and they all want to go where we were last year.”