On Saturday night in Blacksburg, Virginia, Clemson transitioned from being the defending champions to championship contenders. The former evokes memories of what the program accomplished during a climb to the top of the mountain in 2015 and 2016 during a 28-2 run with Deshaun Watson. The latter references a different team: a tenacious and talented group hungry to write its own chapter in 2017.
Clemson’s defense has an argument to be one of the best in the country, stifling the likes of Auburn, Louisville and Virginia Tech on the way to putting together the most impressive playoff profile through five weeks of play. There’s a long way to go this season, but no one in the history of the AP Top 25 has recorded three wins against top 15 teams in September, and it’s a good indicator of where this team stands after losing a handful of players to the NFL.
“I thought we complemented each other well. We got a good start. We had a couple miscues, but this is a good football team,” Dabo Swinney told ESPN after the game. “We had no crazy thoughts that we [would] come up here and not have a crazy fight on our hands.”
Playing in Blacksburg isn’t easy for anyone and Lane Stadium was hyped for the arrival of the defending champions. But instead of playing into the role of the high-profile visitor ripe for upset, Clemson took care of business like the national title contenders that they are, quickly taking the crowd out of the game with its defense and a few quick scores.
Here’s three things to know about Clemson’s 31-17 win.
1. Clemson will take some No. 1 votes from Alabama: Saturday nigh was pretty high on the list of “likely losses” if you believe that the Tigers will slip up at some point during the conference schedule. Such a road loss could be overcome for College Football Playoff purposes with an ACC championship and the nonconference win against Auburn, so the Hokies received a lot of hype coming into the game, and the entire nation was tuned in ready to make judgements about the 2017 Tigers. Totally owning the moment and controlling the game will have voters starting to return to the debate of No. 1 with more respect for Clemson, and I expect they’ll close the gap on Alabama in the polls on Sunday.
2. There’s still room for improvement for Clemson: Having a defense packed with long, athletic and speedy defenders is going to give the Tigers the upper hand every time they get off the bus, but if we’re grading the team as a national title contender, then it’s important to go deeper. Outside of Kelly Bryant’s designed runs and scrambling, the running game wasn’t as productive and the offense had five quick three-and-outs that put that defense right back on the field after a short break. The early lead and turnovers kept Virginia Tech from climbing back, but in the future they’ll need more from the ground game to close out wins.
3. Virginia Tech will need to beat Miami to get another shot: Swinney mentioned that they might see Virginia Tech again in the ACC Championship Game (a rematch of the 2016 42-35 thriller), but the reality of the first month of ACC play is that the Hokies are going to have a thin margin for error moving forward after this loss. Miami looks strong and could end up gaining a huge advantage in the race with a win against Florida State. If that’s the case, Virginia Tech has to beat Miami to win the head-to-head tiebreaker and likely run the table in conference play to win the ACC Coastal Division for a second-straight season.