Clemson rolls to another ACC championship and sends warning to playoff field

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Clemson has made five consecutive appearances in the College Football Playoff, won two of the last four national championships, been near the top in every one of this year’s playoff rankings and is led by the best quarterback prospect to come through the Bowl Subdivision in a generation — and still spent the past two months as the most ignored member of the four teams that defined the regular season.

Scheduling is partly responsible. Clemson went into the ACC championship having played just twice since Nov. 7, when the Tigers lost 47-40 in overtime at Notre Dame. The two wins, against Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech, failed to move the needle.

In the interim, Alabama began building a case for being seen as the program’s most dominant team during the Nick Saban era. Ohio State drew eyeballs and scrutiny during an abbreviated but perfect run through the Big Ten. The Fighting Irish continued to rack up lopsided wins as one-year members of the ACC.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) celebrates after the Tigers beat Notre Dame 34-10 in the 2020 ACC championship game  at Bank of America Stadium.

It was easy to overlook Clemson.

But not anymore. Saturday’s 34-10 win against Notre Dame in the ACC championship game showcased the power of a complete and healthy Clemson team and reestablishes the Tigers’ as a major contender for the program’s third national championship under coach Dabo Swinney.

"Our guys were at their best," said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. "Everything we didn’t do in South Bend, we did tonight. We dominated the trenches on both sides of the ball. We did an unbelievable job."

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Unlike in the previous meeting, Clemson met the Irish with a complete roster. The defense welcomed back its heartbeat, senior middle linebacker James Skalski, and all-conference interior lineman Tyler Davis.

In a stunning reversal, the Tigers dominated the line of scrimmage, harassed quarterback Ian Book, eliminated the Notre Dame running game and shut down an offense that had averaged 496.8 yards and 40.7 points per game since Halloween.

After giving up 518 yards in the first matchup, the most this defense had allowed to an ACC opponent since 2016, Clemson held the Irish to 263 yards on 4.5 yards per play, with six sacks. Book finished with 219 passing yards and without a touchdown for the first time in seven games.

"We did not have that consistency in performance that we had all year," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. "And some of that is who we played today. We played an outstanding football team, and because of it we were not as consistent as a football team that we’ve been."

Most of all, the Tigers welcomed back Lawrence, who accounted for 412 yards of total offense and showed his ability to influence how defenses approach stopping Clemson.

There was a theory heading into the conference championship: Given how true freshman D.J. Uiagalelei fared as Lawrence's replacement in November, throwing for 439 yards and two scores without an interception, how much of a difference would Lawrence make in the rematch?

Once the frontrunner before taking a backseat to two Alabama standouts, quarterback Mac Jones and wide receiver DeVonta Smith, and Florida quarterback Kyle Trask, Lawrence's final impression will have a heavy bearing on the Heisman Trophy race.

"It would be a crying shame if the Heisman didn't attach their name to Trevor Lawrence," Swinney said. "It’s so obvious who the best player in the country is. I hate to even have to campaign for him. Sometimes I think people take him for granted, that it’s just easy what he does. It’s unbelievable what he does."

He threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns. His one interception, early in the first quarter, came off a deflection. He had nine completions of 15 or more yards, highlighted by a 67-yard touchdown heave to wide receiver Amari Rodgers. Lawrence also ran for 90 yards on 14 carries, including a 34-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

While Uiagalelei put up crooked numbers against the Irish, that may have partly by defensive design — Notre Dame instead focused on stopping Clemson running back Travis Etienne, who had the worst game of his career. 

Lawrence's impact was seen in the Tigers' offensive balance. After running for 34 yards on 33 carries two months ago, Clemson finished with 219 yards on 27 carries, with Etienne going for 124 yards in just his third 100-yard game on the season. The performance was a return to form for Etienne, who has struggled to match last year's production. The Tigers finished with 541 yards of total offense on 8.2 yards per play.

"It’s the difference maker, his ability to run," Kelly said of Lawrence. "Really stresses your coverage calls. It stresses a lot of things in terms of your fits. It just opens up some one-on-one matchups that are not favorable. So it’s a dilemma."

For Notre Dame, the margin of defeat erases what seemed like a certainty before the weekend — that the Irish were in the playoff win or lose — and complicates the debate over the final spot in the national semifinals.

"There’s no doubt that this football team is one of the four best in the country," Kelly said. "And we’ll leave the rest up to the committee."

Texas A&M has an argument. The Aggies are 8-1 after beating Tennessee 34-13, with a resume-building win against Florida and just one loss, to Alabama. Oklahoma is in the mix after beating Iowa State to win the Big 12, the Sooners' six consecutive conference championship. And Cincinnati may be in the mix with a win against Tulsa in the American championship game, though the playoff selection committee would frown on including a program from the Group of Five.

Losing by 24 points raises questions about what to make of the overtime win. That came without Lawrence and Skalski, the Tigers' leaders on both sides of the ball. It came at home, even if home-field advantage is weighed differently during a season with limited attendance. Saturday's worst-case scenario came to pass: Notre Dame lost by a lopsided margin on a neutral field with Clemson at full strength.

The Irish still have a strong case. In the strange arithmetic created by the playoff, that win against Clemson now looks stronger. There's also a convincing victory against North Carolina, which would land an automatic New Year's Six bowl bid should the Irish and Tigers reach the semifinals. In all, Notre Dame has nine wins against Power Five competition, four currently with winning records.

"Absolutely Notre Dame deserves to be in," Swinney said. "They stepped in the ring with Clemson twice. Lost one, won one. There’s no doubt in my mind that Notre Dame deserves to be in."