Clemson football: Tigers have momentum heading into the playoffs

clemson football

Admittedly, I felt shaky about Clemson’s chances of launching a deep playoff run after its suspect win over Virginia Tech. All of that doubt was eviscerated on Saturday during the team’s dominant 34-10 win over Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game. With a healthy roster, Clemson football steamrolled Ian Book’s Fighting Irish, and the Ohio State Buckeyes are next.

Everyone knew Clemson had a guaranteed spot in the top four entering Selection Sunday. The College Football Playoff Selection Committee granting Dabo Swinney’s team the No. 2 rank heading into the semifinals didn’t surprise anyone. The Tigers enter the postseason as the only team in the top four to win their conference championship by more than two scores. Ohio State escaped Northwestern 22-10, and Alabama outlasted Florida 52-46.

Obviously, the Tigers can’t get complacent heading into their Jan. 1 matchup against a talented Buckeyes team, but Clemson has more momentum than any other team entering the playoffs. Brent Venables’ unit lost Jake Venables to a broken arm in the Virginia Tech game, but Tyler Davis, Mike Jones Jr. and James Skalski are back to full health. The three starters were all over the field for Clemson against Notre Dame, combining for 10 tackles, a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss.

Unfortunately, starting safety Nolan Turner got called for targeting late in the conference championship game, which means he’ll miss the first half against Ohio State. The senior is the only Clemson defensive back with three years of significant playing time under his belt. However, even without Turner, Clemson’s defense is playing its best football since mid-October.

Entering the Notre Dame rematch, Trevor Lawrence hadn’t looked like himself. The Heisman Trophy candidate threw for under 200 yards against Virginia Tech, and several of his passes could’ve been intercepted. Luckily, Lawrence turned on the jets after an early interception against the Fighting Irish. He finished the game with 322 passing yards, two passing touchdowns, 90 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown in yet another statement win.

While getting Lawrence going was huge for Clemson, I’d argue his performance wasn’t the most important. Even on his off days, Lawrence is still a generational talent. He’ll make plays no matter what. I can’t say the same for Travis Etienne, who finished Clemson’s first game against Notre Dame with 18 carries for 28 yards. Entering last Saturday, he hadn’t run for over 100 yards in a game since early October against Miami.

Thankfully, Etienne found success in one of his final games with the Tigers. The senior bolted for 124 yards and a touchdown on only 10 carries, decimating Notre Dame’s defense. The Tigers desperately need more big performances from Etienne in the playoffs. Without him, the offense becomes one-dimensional and predictable. Etienne is the key to Clemson winning another national championship.

The Clemson Tigers are ACC champions for the sixth consecutive year. Their dominant performance paves the perfect path entering the College Football Playoff, where they’ll face the Buckeyes for the second consecutive year. Unlike Ohio State, Clemson rolls into the semifinals with all of their wheels turning on both sides of the ball. Clemson next takes the field in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 against Justin Fields.