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Clemson Made Its Easy Path to the Playoff Harder

Pitt pulled off the upset, and now the ACC hierarchy is in question

Getty Images
Getty Images

I imagine everything in Pitt kicker Chris Blewitt’s life has been motivated by his desire not to hear the joke. He’s a pretty good kicker! He hit the longest game-winning field goal in ACC history last year against Georgia Tech! But he is a kicker, and his last name is Blewitt, and when he misses field goals … well … see for yourself.

Saturday night, it was no. 2 Clemson who blew it. Yes, Deshaun Watson made magic as he does nearly every week, setting an ACC single-game record with 580 passing yards. But Pitt had an answer for every one of his tricks, managing to pick him off three times — including once on the goal line in the game’s closing minutes. That set up a 48-yard field goal for Blewitt to give Pitt a 43-42 upset win, and nobody is ever allowed to make the joke again.

Until playing Pitt, the Tigers had been unbeaten, but a lot of their wins came in alarming last-minute scrambles. Their season-opening win over Auburn ended with the other Tigers hurling the ball unsuccessfully into the end zone. Their win over NC State came in overtime after the Wolfpack missed a potential game-winning, chip shot field goal. Their win over Louisville ended with the Cardinals just a few yards from a game-winning touchdown. And to get past Florida State, they needed a touchdown with a little over two minutes left.

If I had to pick an ACC team for the College Football Playoff, I would pick Louisville. While Clemson’s bridge to the playoff is built on an uneasy foundation of close wins, the Cardinals have been building on the sturdy bedrock of violent blowouts. Heisman front-runner Lamar Jackson has been dropping heaps of touchdowns on whomever, and Louisville has laid waste to almost everybody it’s played.

Unfortunately for Louisville, the “almost” is there for a reason. The Cardinals lost to Clemson, which gives the Tigers a critical tiebreaker and the chance to get into the ACC championship game if both teams avoid slipups from here on out.

So of the top four teams, Clemson had the easiest remaining road to the College Football Playoff heading into Saturday. Washington has to play USC on Saturday night and will have to play a ranked Washington State team in the Apple Cup. Third-ranked Michigan will have to play Urban Meyer’s Ohio State behemoth in a game that could very well see the Buckeyes leapfrog the Wolverines for playoff consideration. And Alabama has to play Auburn in the Iron Bowl, where miracles destroy dreams.

Meanwhile, Clemson had nobody frightening to face: Pitt, a team that got demolished by Miami last week; Wake Forest, a team having a good year by Wake Forest standards but that remains Wake Forest; and South Carolina, a team coached by Will Muschamp. Surely they’d win those games, and beat whichever lackluster opponent the ACC’s trashier division put forth in the ACC championship game. Clemson was supposed go into the playoff undefeated, just like it had last year.

But we had no reason to assume that every win would be easy. After all, few of Clemson’s previous wins had been.

When Clemson won a bunch of squeakers, we wondered what the Tigers were doing right. Were they grittier than their opponents? More clutch? Was Dabo Swinney better at praying than everybody else on the planet? Perhaps the answer was a bit simpler.

Pitt didn’t win this game because it was more clutch or because Dabo suddenly got worse at praying. The Panthers won because they were good enough to hang around, romping for six touchdowns against the porous defense of a supposedly elite team. Pitt RB James Conner beat cancer last year. You thought he couldn’t beat Clemson? He ran for 132 yards, running far downfield before getting touched and then banging through whoever was unfortunate enough to get close. And if we need more stats to highlight how ineffective the Tigers were defensively, Nathan Peterman set career highs in passing yardage (308) and touchdowns (five).

Clemson’s loss Saturday night was not disqualifying. If the Tigers are 12–1 with multiple wins over ranked teams and in a power conference championship, they probably won’t get overlooked due to a slipup like this one.

But when five close games finally yield a loss, I wonder if there’s another one coming in the end of a season that seemed to be blessed.