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LOUISVILLE — Weather issues in Tallahassee postponed Florida State’s matchup with Miami (Fla.) and moved Clemson and hometown Louisville into prime time, a move the Cardinals celebrated by calling for a blackout. To paraphrase Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran, wearing dark colors meant that Louisville was properly dressed for a funeral.
Clemson won Saturday night, dominating Louisville in all three phases to cruise in its ACC opener, but the truth is the Tigers won long before kickoff — they won the moment this game was scheduled by the league offices. The game itself felt like paperwork.
“Just really a dominant performance,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Louisville is a nice program with a wonderful quarterback, Lamar Jackson, who even in a 47-21 setback accounted for 381 total yards: 317 passing and another 64 rushing, and this in the face of the most ferocious bunch of tacklers in college football. The sensation of facing this defense must resemble the fear and panic when, on a bench press, you realize you’ve taken on too much weight. But for 60 minutes.
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But Louisville isn’t Clemson. That much was clear on Saturday. Jackson can put the Cardinals into the conversation with the Tigers, as he did in each of the past two seasons — Jackson and maybe only Jackson. But Clemson is Clemson, again.
The names have changed. Starters have gone, replaced by new ones. The coaching staff remains intact — Brent Venables is still running the defense, most of all, and Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott lead the offense. The culture hasn’t moved an inch. Clemson is still Clemson, just slightly tweaked and altered to fit a tweaked and altered cast, and in this sense a rout against Louisville was completely and utterly expected.
“Everybody focuses on who’s not here. I’ve never focused on who’s not here,” Swinney said. “I always focus on who’s here and who’s coming. You can’t look in your rearview mirror.”
But Louisville is just the start — the second of four true tests Clemson will face during the regular season, following last weekend’s win against Auburn and preceding Virginia Tech and the Seminoles. The case can be made that the Cardinals will present the toughest test, in fact.
And doing what they did to Louisville, asserting their will against a top-15 divisional rival, makes an easy case for more of the same: Clemson in 2017 looks like Clemson in 2016 and Clemson in 2015, meaning it’s time — even after just three full weeks — to pencil Clemson into the College Football Playoff, and to begin thinking just who, if anyone, has what it takes to unseat the defending champions.
The Tigers spent an offseason and two weeks relatively overlooked, considering their recent pedigree. How and why that is says something about perception, and about getting the benefit of the doubt. Alabama gets it, rightfully. So does Ohio State, Florida State, Oklahoma and Southern California; Texas gets it, even, and LSU, Auburn and the rest of the SEC. Clemson hasn’t.
Few picked the Tigers to repeat. Not many more pegged the Tigers as the best team in their own conference, let alone their own division. It wasn’t until Deondre Francois was lost for the season that Clemson was vaulted into the driver’s seat in the ACC. After all — in case you hadn’t heard — Clemson lost its own wonderful quarterback, Deshaun Watson, and you don’t just replace Deshaun Watson.
Unless you had Kelly Bryant, a junior who played understudy to Watson in each of the past two seasons. Something rubbed off on Bryant, who called Watson a “mentor and a big brother” after the first road win of his career. While Jackson had his highlight-reel moments, Bryant ended up stealing the show.
“It’s a new team. This is a new journey,” Elliott said. “It’s a new team with the same dream. We want to accomplish the same things as last year’s team but this is a new group of guys.”
But he’s not the only star for Clemson, which as a program has flashed more individual star power than, say, Alabama — the Tide are thought of more as a powerful group than single standouts — but has hewed to that program’s example of elite units over elite individual players.
Four running backs churned out at least 34 yards against the Cardinals. Ten players made a reception. The defense accounted for seven tackles for loss and four sacks. The secondary lost a key cog, Tanner Muse, to a targeting penalty in the first quarter; his replacement, redshirt freshman Isaiah Simmons, moved seamlessly into the lineup. It was a team effort, a swamping, a domination of a team expecting to ride home-field advantage into the top five of the Amway Coaches Poll.
The defense deserves a quick aside. The secondary is good. The linebacker core is better than everyone thinks. But this defensive line, with the interior tandem of Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, is something else. The assistants in charge of the defense can only smile. Asked if there are three future first-round picks up front, a defensive assistant replied in the negative. There may be four, he said.
Leave no doubt, Clemson coaches and players say as a mantra, and they did no such thing. Louisville’s starting offense drove in search a meaningless touchdown late in the fourth quarter against the Tigers’ second-string defense only to be rebuffed just yards from the end zone. Clemson’s sideline celebrated like it was January and Watson had just found Hunter Renfrow. Leave no doubt, a Clemson staffer yelled at Swinney as they raced off the field. “Leave no doubt,” he screamed in return.
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“We felt like we left a little doubt the last few years,” Swinney said, referencing the past three meetings in the series. “We came here to win the game and leave no doubt.”
Doubt is in short supply at Clemson. What should the Tigers doubt about themselves, and why? This program is a juggernaut. The best player in program history leaves and it doesn’t miss a beat. The list of those who can do the same is short, consisting of just two names. The first is Clemson, the second is Alabama.
Like Alabama, the Tigers are the clear class of their conference. Like Alabama, the Tigers win games before they step off the bus. Again like Alabama, the Tigers are battle-tested, aware of what lies ahead. They know there may be a loss looming, like Pittsburgh a year ago, but that the serious business starts in December.
Pencil both into a national semifinal. No, ink them in, book your flights and hotels, scout out the local dining scene. The matchup that ended each of the past two seasons seems preordained. They each look the part. One difference, however, from the perceptions of the recent past: Clemson’s the team to beat for the national title.