No. 3 Clemson is starting to look a little like another highly touted Atlantic Coast Conference team that reached the College Football Playoff with an unbeaten record, built on a foundation of great escapes.
The Tigers' latest trick was a 10-point, fourth-quarter comeback victory against Syracuse in Death Valley on Saturday, with a quarterback who was third on the depth chart just a week ago. A long, late touchdown drive kept Clemson undefeated. Earlier this month, the Tigers needed to stop a potential tying 2-point conversion by Texas A&M late in the fourth quarter to hold off the Aggies in College Station.
Coach Dabo Swinney's team is hard to beat. The Tigers rarely flinch when faced with adversity and winning tight games is just part of the program's DNA. Since 2015, the season Clemson won the first of its current streak of three straight ACC championships, no other FBS team has more than Clemson's 13 victories by seven or less points . The Tigers are 13-3 in those games.
In 2014, Florida State still ruled the ACC, and they had a similar ability to dodge the upset bug. The Seminoles were the defending national champions, with Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. They started the season No. 1 in the rankings, but rarely did anything come easy.
They needed OT to beat Clemson with a backup quarterback when Winston was suspended. They rallied from down 24-7 in the first quarter to beat North Carolina State and trailed Louisville 21-7 at the half before winning. Florida State won seven one-score games that season against an ACC schedule that was not loaded with ranked teams. The Seminoles slipped in the rankings but never lost and eventually went into the College Football Playoff as the No. 3 seed. Their good fortune ran out in the Rose Bowl, where they were eliminated by Oregon in the semifinals.
Clemson didn't enter the season with quite the hype of that Florida State team, but they were a solid No. 2 in the preseason Top 25 behind Alabama, even drawing some support for No. 1. The Tigers have a defensive line touted as one of the best in college football history. They were expected to be closer to Alabama's equal but they could be down to No. 4 or 5 in the rankings by Sunday depending on how top-10 showdowns between No. 4 Ohio State and No. 9 Penn State and No. 7 Stanford and No. 8 Notre Dame play out Saturday night.
In the playoff era fans are often far more focused on finding flaws in the playoff contenders then acknowledging strengths.
Clemson is positioned to be excessively nitpicked, much as Florida State was in 2014, if it doesn't kick it into gear. The ACC doesn't look especially strong, though Syracuse, North Carolina State and even Boston College could change that perception. Clemson is so clearly the most talented team in the conference that it can play a poor game at home with a reserve quarterback in the second half and still gut out a victory. The Tigers' resilience is a positive, but if they have to keep showing it off it won't be viewed that way.
RED RIVER RELEVANT
For the first time since 2012, Texas and Oklahoma will both be ranked going into the Red River Shootout at the state fair in Dallas.
The 18th-ranked Longhorns crossed another mile-marker in their return to national relevance by snapping a five-game losing streak at Kansas State and racking up a fourth straight victory for the first time since 2013.
No. 6 Oklahoma remained unbeaten, despite Kyler Murray starting the game on the bench . The star quarterback was held out of the first offensive series for disciplinary reasons. Then he went off as the Sooners had a much easier time against Baylor than they did against Army last week.
The Red River Rivalry has produced some entertaining games in recent years, including last season when Oklahoma won 29-24. Even as Texas has fallen way behind the Sooners in the Big 12, the Longhorns have won two of the last five head-to-head matchups. Twice Charlie Strong beat the Sooners. Neither time was Texas back. But this is an opportunity for Texas to truly start to be taken seriously.
A victory against the Sooners would put the Longhorns in first in the Big 12 with victories against TCU and Oklahoma, and with No. 12 West Virginia scheduled to come to Austin on Nov. 3.
AROUND THE COUNTRY: Not sure if coming from behind to beat a Louisville team that has looked like a mess is reason for a lot of optimism, but Florida State and new coach Willie Taggart seemingly have stabilized their season ... Will UCLA win a game in year one under Chip Kelly? The Pac-12 South isn't all that tough, but UCLA also plays No. 7 Stanford, No. 11 Washington, No. 19 Oregon and No. 24 California out of the north. The Bruins have never won fewer than three games in the Pac-12 (10, 8) era, which started in 1968. ... No. 13 UCF zipped through Pitt as if it was nothing and could work its way into the top 10 this week, but the Knights are again going to be saddled with a schedule that lacks oomph. UCF had to be hoping the American Athletic Conference might provide opportunities for resume-boosting wins, but that's not working out. Memphis is down. Navy seems OK. Temple has been about the same. Expect to be right back where we were last year, with UCF complaining about being dissed by the CFP selection committee, and the committee pointing the Knights' strength of schedule. ... A week after upsetting Virginia Tech, Old Dominion lost to East Carolina to fall to 1-4. Strange game.
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