ORLANDO, Fla. -- There were slumps, there were turnovers, and there was a loss. Yet here No. 3 Clemson stands as Selection Day begins, right where it needed to be: at midfield of the ACC championship game, celebrating after having clearly punched its ticket to the College Football Playoff.
This is where the Tigers will write the story of their 2016 season. After a 42-35 win over No. 23 Virginia Tech, any remaining pressure to return to the postseason is off. The victory mirrored the season, with its ups and downs, but now Clemson will likely head west to the College Football Playoff semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.
Chaos for the selection committee was avoided, but there were tense moments Saturday, as the Tigers’ 21-point second-half lead was nearly blown. However, Cordrea Tankersley intercepted a fourth-down pass at the Clemson 14-yard line with 1:11 left to secure a second straight conference title.
The Tigers' defense gave up 252 yards on Virginia Tech's last four possessions.
But the Tigers can feel good about the victory, and it came on the strength of Deshaun Watson’s arms and legs. The junior solidified his place in New York for next Saturday's Heisman Trophy presentation with 288 yards passing, 85 yards rushing and five total touchdowns.
Reminiscent of last season, Watson, the ACC title game MVP, is playing his best football entering the playoff, even though the Tigers flashed some of the tendencies that haunted them throughout 2016. The offense stalled because of costly penalties. The defense looked like a class unit at times, yet at other times, it resembled a group that has been reconstructed twice in two seasons.
Clemson can lean on how it responded in the playoff following a similar performance in last season’s ACC championship. Last December, the Tigers led by 19 in the fourth quarter but needed a questionable call on an onside kick to beat North Carolina 45-37. Then the Tigers were terrific against Oklahoma in the 2015 semifinal and nearly beat Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Could Clemson compete with Alabama, a team that has gone wire to wire as the country’s No. 1 team? The Tigers haven’t always looked the part of Crimson Tide Kryptonite, but Watson has been brilliant on runs, which frustrated Alabama last season. Most of Watson’s 85 yards against the Hokies on Saturday came on designed runs, as he maneuvered off blockers, shed tacklers and raced around the edges to take away angles.
It could be a prelude to the offense the Tigers will use in the playoff, as they now no longer need to save Watson’s legs. Clemson was at its best last season when Watson relied on his arms and legs, and on Saturday, he routinely burned the Hokies with both.
The defense gave up five touchdowns and 386 yards, but it has a line that is among the better groups nationally. It took over the game early in the second half, before a weird play design in which the Tigers rushed zero players allowed Virginia Tech to complete a long pass and build momentum. Before that, the Tigers sacked Jerod Evans four times.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney believes close games will benefit his team. Now they will be a benefit only if the Tigers reach their goal, and the Tigers are on the playoff doorstep.