CLEMSON, S.C. — Alabama is playing touch football. Notre Dame labored for three quarters against a dreadful Florida State team. Florida’s defensive weakness caught up with it. Even Georgia, which has been outstanding, trailed at halftime for the second time in three games.
Clemson? No struggles, no worries, no competition still from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Same as it ever was. In a year when nothing seems normal, Dabo dominance remains a constant.
Maybe that changes when the Tigers go to South Bend in November. Or maybe there is an ACC championship game test against North Carolina looming. But for now, once again, the best bet to go undefeated in college football is Clemson.
Hopes for a competitive game were kindled here Saturday night, when No. 7-ranked Miami came to town for a rare Top Ten matchup. The Hurricanes had looked great in piling up three opening victories, displaying a balanced offense and a playmaking defense. They had two weeks to prepare for this one, while the Tigers had one.
Yet it took all of one quarter and six seconds to extinguish those hopes, as Clemson scored touchdowns on its first two drives and squashed the Miami offense. Everything thereafter was a formality that ultimately ended in a 42-17 stroll through the rain. The Hurricanes believed this was their chance to prove something to the college football establishment, but the proof that came out of the night was that Clemson routinely rises to every big occasion.
“It’s woven into our culture here,” Dabo Swinney said afterward.
While all hell was breaking loose in other parts of the country, it was a normal Saturday in Death Valley. That’s now 25 straight ACC victories, and nine straight by at least 18 points.
What Clemson has that others do not: Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Brent Venables. That’s the best quarterback, the best running back and the best defensive coordinator in college football. Those are three nice things to have in what looks like an epically unsettled year.
All their gifts were on display against Miami.
Lawrence threw with pace, with precision and with touch, passing for 292 yards and three touchdowns while running his streak of pass attempts without an interception to 355. Among his career-high 41 attempts were several throws that some current NFL starting quarterbacks cannot make. He also manipulated the Hurricanes defense with play fakes and deftly read their coverages. He also once again showed his inherent toughness, bouncing back from a painful shot to the midsection that left him laid out on the field, then coming back and finishing the drive with a touchdown run. (And an uncharacteristic spike of the ball that drew a personal foul flag.)
“Helmet right to the stomach, knocked the breath out of me,” Lawrence said. “That’s something I pride myself on. To come back in the game and finish that drive was really important.”
And the spike?
“Just a dumb play on my part,” Lawrence said. “I shouldn’t have done that. I was just fired up.”
Said Swinney: “Nothing I see from Trevor surprises me, other than him spiking the ball. I don’t get the opportunity to yell at him much, but I did there.”
Etienne continues to be all but impossible to tackle from the waist down. He ran for a season-high 149 yards and two touchdowns, and was Clemson’s leading receiver with a career high of eight catches for 73 yards. Etienne’s 72-yard scoring run in the third quarter snuffed out whatever hope Miami might have harbored for a second-half comeback.
“He’s built like you want running backs to be built, with thick thighs and a big backside,” offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tony Elliott said. “But I also believe he almost goes into a zone when he runs. He doesn’t believe one person can tackle him.”
Said Lawrence of his backfield mate: “It just makes your jaw drop sometimes as a quarterback. It changes the game to have a guy like that who’s that explosive.”
You can put either Lawrence or Etienne atop your Heisman Trophy watch list at this point, and you wouldn’t be wrong. “I don’t think we have ever mentioned the Heisman race,” Etienne said. “We’re just trying to win games. … If you’re not winning games, they ain’t talking about you in the Heisman race.” (For his part, Lawrence said he would vote for Etienne for the award—if he had a vote.)
Venables concocted a defense that destroyed what had been a productive Miami running game, holding the Hurricanes to 89 rushing yards—56 of which came on one scramble by quarterback D’Eriq King. The Houston transfer’s hot start to the year met a soggy demise against Clemson, as King threw his first two interceptions of the season and had a career-low 64.9 pass efficiency rating. Clemson dominated the Miami offensive line, continually sending linebackers on blitzes that resulted in nine tackles for loss.
The fact that all three are still wearing Clemson orange is the real difference maker for this team. Etienne could have gone pro last winter and been drafted, but chose to return. Lawrence could have opted out like several other high draft picks—Penei Sewell, Micah Parsons, JaMarr Chase, Gregory Rousseau and Caleb Farley, to name five—but wanted to play this fall. Venables has chosen to stay put as a rockstar coordinator instead of chasing head-coaching jobs.
Bottom line: players and coaches who come to Clemson love being at Clemson, and tend to stay awhile. That stability and continuity helps build culture, the favorite 21st century word of coaches.
Basically, Clemson is today what Miami was from 1983-92, albeit in a very different form. The Tigers (along with Alabama) are the constants of the sport, the pillars that never topple. The Hurricanes, aspiring to return to that level, knew they had to go through Death Valley Saturday night to get there.
They didn’t get there. Instead it was ACC business as usual. On a wobbly weekend for many of the best teams in the nation, Clemson was never knocked off stride. And in a season of maximum uncertainty, the Tigers once again look like the surest of sure things.