ACC: Dabo Swinney

Video: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney

October, 18, 2014
Oct 18
7:22
PM ET
video

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney praised quarterback Cole Stoudt after the 24th-ranked Tigers' 17-13 win over Boston College on Saturday.

ACC viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
10:00
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Pittsburgh snapped a three-game skid Thursday by beating Virginia Tech. Here's the rest of the ACC action for Week 8.

Noon

Syracuse at Wake Forest, ESPN, #CUSEvsWAKE: AJ Long gets the start for Syracuse after Terrel Hunt and Austin Wilson both went down. The true freshman saw extended action last week against defending national champion Florida State, and he now faces a stingy Wake Forest defense that is coming off a bye. The Demon Deacons also start a true freshman under center, though John Wolford has been the guy for Wake since Day 1. Expect defense to rule the day in this contest.

12:30 p.m.

Virginia at Duke, ESPN3, #UVAvsDUKE: It is the current Coastal Division leaders against the reigning division champions. What gives? The Cavaliers are coming off a bye after looking impressive in wins over Pitt and, earlier this season, Louisville. Can the Hoos' defense deliver once again? The Blue Devils did hand Georgia Tech its first loss of the season last week, but their offense needs to play within themselves.

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsWill Gardner is expected to get the nod at quarterback for Louisville, which hosts NC State on Saturday.
NC State at Louisville, ESPN3, #NCSUvsLOU: It's 11 straight ACC losses for the Wolfpack, who are still seeking that first league win under Dave Doeren. A team that looked so good so early this season has struggled immensely on the offensive side of the ball in the past two weeks against Clemson and Boston College. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are looking to erase the sour taste from their mouths after last week's heartbreaker against the Tigers. They will turn back to Will Gardner under center to try to get them back on track. Receiver DeVante Parker, who has yet to play this season, is questionable.

No. 24 Clemson at Boston College, ESPNU, #CLEMvsBC: Alumni Stadium holds a special place in Dabo Swinney's heart, as it was the site of his first career win as Clemson's head coach. The Eagles nearly shocked the Tigers last year back in Death Valley, and they did manage to knock off USC earlier this season, so they cannot be taken lightly. BC's run game has been simply astounding at times, with the Eagles outrushing their opposition 1,513-134 in their four wins. Clemson turns back to Cole Stoudt this week at quarterback after Deshaun Watson suffered a broken finger last week.

7 p.m.

Georgia Tech at North Carolina, ESPNU, #GTvsUNC: The Yellow Jackets lost their first game of the season last week, a delay-filled affair against Duke. But that option attack might still be tough to defend for a UNC defense that cannot seem to get out of its own way. Marquise Williams played a terrific game last week at Notre Dame, giving the Tar Heels a tremendous chance to win. But surrendering 50 points for the third time this season did the Heels no good, and, unless that changes, questions will remain about this team.

8 p.m.

No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 2 Florida State, ABC, #NDvsFSU: Everett Golson is 16-1 as a starter. Jameis Winston is 19-0. "College GameDay" is on hand for this game with huge College Football Playoff implications. Brian Kelly and Jimbo Fisher are both in their fifth season with the Fighting Irish and Seminoles, respectively, and [at least] one might have the chance to be in the national title mix for the second time in three seasons. Notre Dame lost in the title game in 2012; FSU won it all in 2013. Chaos has subsided with the Irish, who finally know the fate of the five players who were suspended back in August as part of an internal academic probe. FSU, meanwhile, has dealt with the circus that is Winston seemingly all season long, with the heat amped up this week amid news of a potential disciplinary hearing and an autograph controversy.
Cole Stoudt took exactly zero reps during practice last week while he rehabbed and rested his injured left shoulder.

When Saturday came around, he took a painkilling shot before the game began as a precaution. He suited up, but nobody had any plans for him to play.

Then Deshaun Watson got hurt.

[+] EnlargeCole Stoudt
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesCole Stoudt will be Clemson's signal-caller for a month after Deshaun Watson's injury.
Stoudt quickly warmed up and entered the game in the second quarter, his adrenaline pumping. When the third quarter began, the painkilling shot had worn off, and the pain started growing stronger and stronger. His team needed him though, so Stoudt put on a brave face for his teammates on the sideline and in the huddle.

He had never played through that type of pain before, but this was an opportunity Stoudt figured might not come again after he was benched in favor of Watson last month.

So Stoudt gutted out a 23-17 win over Louisville. There was nothing pretty about the victory offensively, but it was victory enough for the Tigers, and especially Stoudt.

"I was hurting pretty bad," Stoudt said in a phone interview this week. "I was probably under 50 percent, but it was all a mental thing. I knew I could fight through it. I knew that I was going to do everything it took to help the team win the game. I knew I wasn’t going to get off the field unless I was dragged off."

It almost came to that in the postgame celebration, when he started getting pats on the back and hard taps on the shoulder. Tight end Sam Cooper, who told him throughout the game, ‘Don’t show any pain, battle through this,’ found him near the locker room and said, ‘OK now you can show pain.’

Stoudt allowed Cooper to help him into the locker room. He left wearing a sling after receiving treatment, but when he woke up Sunday, the pain had subsided substantially. He is no longer in the sling and has been able to take all the reps at practice this week.

So now this is Stoudt’s show for the next three to four weeks while Watson recovers from surgery on his broken finger. Clemson has not been nearly as productive offensively with Stoudt under center, an issue the Tigers must work on over the next month.

“Obviously, Deshaun brings a little something different to the table,” coach Dabo Swinney said this week. “Cole is still capable of doing what we need to be able to do to maintain the integrity of what we are doing. He is confident. He did not lose the job by playing badly. He lost the job by the other guy just being elite if you will. That is really the best way to say it. He is very capable.”

In games against Georgia, Florida State and Louisville, Stoudt led Clemson to two total touchdown drives -- both against the Bulldogs. The Seminoles and Cardinals are the two toughest defenses Clemson has faced to date, but Watson proved to be much more productive against the Seminoles -- and that is why he earned the starting job.

Stoudt was not happy about the demotion but tried to maintain a positive demeanor, hoping his day would come again.

“I knew it was going to be a tough situation. It was. I wasn’t happy with it, but I knew I had to come in and still give a positive attitude,” Stoudt said. “I knew the team was bigger than one person, so I didn’t want my attitude to affect other people, so I went in there and helped others and made myself better. I still acted like I was a starter, so if opportunity came again I’d be ready.”

Now Clemson needs more than his positive attitude. The Tigers need him to be better than he has been at any point this season.
The text messages are still on his phone, because Dabo Swinney cannot bear to delete them.

They are just another way to keep Lisa Lamb close. Six months have passed since his sister-in-law died, leaving a hole in the Swinney family that can never be filled. Sometimes, Swinney just looks at her texts for a good chuckle.

Like the one she sent while she was still in the hospital battling cancer. She wrote: "I cannot believe you're allowing your wife to dress our father this way" and attached a picture of him wearing crazy pants.

[+] EnlargeLisa Lamb, Mike Lamb, Jacob Lamb, Zach Lamb
Courtesy of Kathleen SwinneyLisa Lamb pictured with her husband, Mike, and sons Jacob and Zach, died in April following her second bout with cancer.
"That was just her personality," Swinney recalled with a laugh. "She would say anything, but she could get away with it."

Lamb is never far from his thoughts, or those of his wife, Kathleen -- one of Lamb's younger sisters. Most especially in October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Lisa Lamb fought breast cancer and won in 2003. But nine years later, the cancer returned -- this time in her brain and lungs.

She spent two years in and out of hospitals before she died in April, two days after Easter. She was 49.

But in illness, and in death, Lamb gave life. Sometimes, that is hard for Kathleen to accept, because tragedy rarely leads to hope. How can death provide a gift? How can Kathleen be happy for herself, knowing her parents lost their first-born child, her nephews lost their mom, her brother-in-law lost his wife?

The grief comes in waves. The guilt does, too. But the gratefulness is permanent, because Kathleen knows better than anyone that Lamb died knowing she had potentially saved her sisters from the same hideous disease she could no longer fight.

When Lamb was first diagnosed with breast cancer, she underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, and the treatments worked. She was cancer free and happy, but she soon learned she carried a mutated gene linked with breast cancer.

The genes are hereditary; Carriers have a much higher rate of developing breast cancer than the general population.

Lamb urged Kathleen and their youngest sister, Ann, to get tested. One of their cousins was fighting breast cancer at the time, and she also had the gene. Kathleen hesitated initially. She had three young boys and felt fine.

So she waited -- until she realized she could not wait any longer.

"Seeing what my sister went through, it would almost insult her if I didn't do something about it," Kathleen Swinney said. "She never said any of this, but it was almost like, 'You can have this knowledge. I wish I would have had this knowledge.'"

Finally, in 2005, Kathleen went to see a genetic counselor. She had her blood drawn and was called in a month later to hear the results.

She was a carrier.

"It was a surreal moment when we sat down with the doctor and he said, 'Look, here's the deal,'" Dabo Swinney said. "'You carry the gene, and there's a 90 percent chance you're going to get breast cancer. It's just a matter of when.'"

They listened, in shock, as the doctor laid out her options. Kathleen could be more vigilant with mammograms and screenings. Or she could take a drug that would potentially decrease her risk. Or she could get a double mastectomy, which would reduce her chances of getting breast cancer to about 1 percent.

"By the time I left the office, I got in the car and told Dabo, 'I need to have a double mastectomy," Kathleen said. "I didn't even waver. I was 34 at the time, but I felt my heart racing -- Lisa got this at 38, I don't have much longer, it's going to come, it's going to come."

Three months later -- in the middle of football season -- Kathleen had the surgery. Her sister, Ann, also was a carrier and had the same procedure. At age 40, Kathleen also had a hysterectomy to cut down her chances of developing ovarian cancer.

All seemed well with Lamb, but in 2011, everything changed. Lamb's doctors decided to take her off her cancer medication because she was doing so well. One year later, Lamb started to feel funny. She was tired, developed a cough and had trouble walking.

[+] EnlargeAnn Cicero, Kathleen Swinney, Lisa Lamb, Bette Bassett
Courtesy of Kathleen SwinneyAnn Cicero, Kathleen Swinney and Lisa Lamb with their mom, Bette Bassett.
She went for another round of tests. Doctors found the cancer had returned. Lamb underwent successful brain surgery. But with the cancer in her lungs, there was not much the doctors could do.

Despite their positivity, the family knew they would eventually lose Lamb. So they tried to make the most of the time they had together. Over Memorial Day weekend in 2013, they all took a beach vacation. She got to be home for Thanksgiving, to celebrate the birth of Ann's first child. She got to be home for Christmas, too.

But in January 2014, Lamb was hospitalized for good. Kathleen drove from Clemson to Birmingham, Alabama, as much as possible. So did Dabo. Their final visit was on Easter Sunday. Dabo Swinney knew that was the last time he would see Lamb alive.

"I told Kath when we left, I think it was the first time I had seen her peaceful -- like she wasn't fighting," Dabo Swinney said.

Kathleen Swinney is alive because of her sister, and because of breast cancer research -- a cause the Swinneys have championed through their All In Team Foundation. They have raised between $250,000-$300,000 for breast cancer causes alone.

Clemson designated the Louisville game last Saturday as its breast cancer awareness game. Kathleen's family attended, including her brother-in-law, nephews and parents. There were hugs and tears. But mostly, there was love.

"Time will help heal the pain a little bit, but Lisa fought so hard," Kathleen said. "It's a gut-wrenching, horrific disease and just to watch somebody slowly die ... it's just really, really awful. It makes you definitely appreciate every day. You feel so blessed for every one moment."

Video: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney

October, 11, 2014
Oct 11
7:33
PM ET
video 

Coach Dabo Swinney praises his defense and senior quarterback Cole Stoudt after Clemson's 23-17 win over Louisville on Saturday.

Dabo Swinney is one happy lip-syncer

October, 8, 2014
Oct 8
2:17
PM ET
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney wants the school's alumni to come back to campus for the Tigers' homecoming game later this month against Syracuse. He says it's going to be awesome. And he wants them to be happy. Or something like that. It doesn't really matter.

All that matters is this video includes Swinney dancing around his office and lip-syncing to Pharrell Williams' song "Happy." That's really all you need to know. Enjoy ...

Dabo Swinney said before the season that a lot of people would be asking him about Clemson's new receiving corps by the end of the year. Consider the Tigers' pass-catchers ahead of schedule.

Gone are Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant from last season. So, too, are DeAndre Hopkins and Jaron Brown from the year before. But the depth of this young group has been evident through five games, with three different players catching 15 or more passes, and six different players hauling in touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeMike Williams
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsMike Williams showed his explosiveness last Saturday in Clemson's win over NC State.
Clemson leads the ACC in passing, averaging 335.8 yards per game, and the unit figures to only grow as the schedule eases and the adjustment to bigger roles continues.

"Not surprised, because we had a couple of them here this spring, Demarre Kitt and Artavis (Scott) came in January, I think that really helped those guys and I'm proud of then," Swinney said. "They're doing a nice job for us. Some of our young tight ends continue to develop. I really like the fact that we've been able to involve our running backs in the passing game as well, and a young guy like Germone Hopper, who's not a freshman, he's a sophomore, been around here a couple years, I think he's been a huge addition as well, and it's really just him he's finally bought into the way we do things here at Clemson. It's really good to see these him reap those rewards from buying in and working hard and being committed to being a great player."

Hopper has been a big-play threat, catching eight balls for 233 yards and two scores. Mike Williams has led the group, with the sophomore hauling in 21 catches for 520 yards and four touchdowns. He is tied with seven other ACC players for the league lead in receiving scores, and within the conference he trails just Florida State's Rashad Greene (576) in receiving yards and Miami's Phillip Dorsett in yards per catch (31.3).

Williams said he had a goal this season of reaching 1,000 yards receiving, something that appears well within reach with at least seven games remaining. He celebrated his 20th birthday Saturday in a 41-0 win over NC State by hauling in six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the game's first six minutes.

"I felt good," said Williams, who said he told quarterback Deshaun Watson before the game that he wanted two scores as a gift. "I felt like I played one of my best games here at Clemson on my birthday, so that was all pretty good."

Williams said Watson, the true freshman signal-caller, has been instrumental in the receivers' growth, from pulling players aside in practice to taking control in offseason 7-on-7 work.

"That's where the chemistry's developed," Swinney said, "the nuances of your passing game, and those guys spending that extra time, getting just reps, because ultimately it's about reps and just the chemistry that comes from getting those reps together is critical."

Scott is second on the Tigers in receptions (18), yards (305) and receiving touchdowns (three). He arrived to campus this past January with Watson, and the two are roommates. But the freshman admitted he did not envision this much success this soon for an offense facing so much personnel turnover, though it helped having eventual NFL receivers offer him advice on his visit and again around draft time.

"I talked to Sammy and Martavis," Scott said of last year's go-to threats. "They told me when you come in here to be ready, because you'll get an opportunity and when it comes take full advantage. Do the things you know you can do. Don't overthink it."
Perhaps it's a statement on the lack of depth in the conference, or maybe it's a nod to the sheer talent at Florida State, but after a 15-point loss to the Seminoles, NC State is finally getting some respect.

The Wolfpack jumped out to a 4-0 start this season, but the opposition was lackluster and the bandwagon remained sparse, but after Jacoby Brissett shredded FSU's vaunted defense to the tune of 24 first-quarter points, NC State suddenly seemed like a real player in a league desperate for a few challengers to Florida State's dominance.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsDeshaun Watson has established himself as the quarterback of the near future for the 2-2 Tigers.
"I believe we can beat anybody, and that game showed it," NC State coach Dave Doeren said. "We have that confidence."

That's a start for the Wolfpack, but it still wasn't a win.

For Clemson, respect in the league hasn't been hard to grasp. The Tigers have been the clear No. 2 in the conference the past few years, but the goal has been to reach just a bit higher. Two weeks ago, against those same Seminoles, they were painfully close to assuming the mantle atop the conference, but like NC State, they fell just a bit short.

But again, a loss to Florida State was just the start of something new for Clemson, too. Freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson got his first start last Saturday, and he made it a memorable one -- tossing six touchdown passes against an overwhelmed North Carolina defense.

Like NC State, Clemson didn't knock off the champs, but it did gain some momentum.

"He's a special young talent," Dabo Swinney said of his new QB. "I haven't been around a freshman like him."

Neither team appears likely to win the Atlantic Division now, but thanks to all that post-FSU momentum, the Tigers and Wolfpack are set to face off in what might be the ACC's most intriguing game of Week 6.

The intrigue starts at the quarterback position, as Watson and Brissett have emerged as legitimate challengers to Jameis Winston's ACC supremacy. In fact, Swinney sees an awful lot of the reigning Heisman winner in NC State's QB.

"If you just take the jerseys off, [Brissett] looks a lot like Winston, just the size and kind of some of their movements and how they're both strong enough to break tackles and extend some plays," Swinney said. "I've been very impressed with him."

Watson has done his share of impressing, too. In his first four career games, his stat lines compares favorably with what Winston did to start his Heisman campaign just a season ago. Watson has averaged more yards-per-pass, posted a better TD-to-INT ratio and is just a 1 percentage point behind Winston's completion percentage from his first four games of 2013.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Brissett
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeNC State's Jacoby Brissett is pushing the Wolfpack to contend for the Atlantic Division title.
"He's a very mature individual and he knows his role," Clemson tailback C.J. Davidson said of Watson. "He knows what it takes to be great. I knew when he got his chance that he would step up."

But if the QBs are the hot story, the secondaries should be most concerned.

Clemson's vaunted pass rush has done its job (38 tackles for loss), but against FBS foes, the Tigers rank 95th nationally in passing defense, allowing 276 yards per game.

NC State's numbers aren't quite so troublesome — 238 passing yards-per-game vs. FBS teams — but Winston torched the Wolfpack for 365 yards and four TDs last week, with a host of missed tackles adding to the misery of a 56-41 loss.

"Coverage mistakes, missed tackles, mental errors, people aligned in the wrong place," said freshman linebacker Jerod Fernandez, who had two INTs against the Seminoles. "Florida State is a good team, and when you have those kinds of mistakes against that type of team, they're going to capitalize."

Clemson is another team more than capable of capitalizing on mistakes, but that's the ideal way to rebound from an ugly performance, Fernandez said. And a year after suffering through an 0-8 record in conference play, NC State is eager to get a win in the league on another big stage.

And that's really what's at stake in Death Valley on Saturday. Both Clemson and NC State are now squarely in FSU's rearview mirror, which makes earning some respect in crucial conference games all that much more important.

"I feel like we earned a little respect last week," Fernandez said, "and now we've just got to take it."
Florida State and Virginia broke long droughts between 1,000-yard rushers a season ago, but so far this season both schools have struggled to run the ball consistently.

So has Clemson, in danger of failing to produce a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in four seasons.

So has Miami even, a program that returned the best back in the ACC in Duke Johnson.

The four schools rank in the bottom half in the nation in rushing, which is somewhat surprising considering the talent they have in the backfield. In the 18 combined games the four starting running backs in the group have played this season, only two resulted in 100-yard performances. Johnson is the only one on pace for a 1,000-yard regular season.

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesDuke Johnson didn't get his first 100-yard rushing game of this season until last week.
Kevin Parks, the only returning 1,000-yard rusher from a season ago, has 258 total yards this season, and his yards-per-carry average is down from 4.5 to 3.4.

One common theme ties them all together – each program has dealt with inconsistency along its offensive line. Florida State has had a tough time replacing starting center Bryan Stork; the entire right side of the Miami offensive line is new; Virginia has been a revolving door up front; and Clemson has gotten little or no push from its linemen.

In fact, no offensive line is doing less for its team than Clemson, which is averaging just 1.04 yards before contact per rush. Florida State is second in the ACC in highest rate of runs resulting in zero yards or loss, at 24.3 percent; Miami is fourth (20.9 percent).

FSU also has been the worst team in the ACC in rushing between the tackles on non-quarterback runs (3.06 yards per carry). Miami, Clemson and Virginia rank 9-10-11, respectively.

The Canes had their best rushing day of the season last week against Duke, when Johnson had his first 100-yard game and the team had over 200 yards rushing. Johnson said in a phone interview one of the biggest reasons was because Miami changed up some of its blocking schemes and honed in on little details that the veterans on the offensive line a season ago intuitively knew.

“Changes on the offensive line, it kind of hurt just because last year we had two seniors on the right side of the line, so that kind of helped out in case the communication got lost, you had two older guys on the right side who understand everything that’s going on and they’re able to make the check and help out,” Johnson said.

What also hurt Miami was seeing a stacked box early in the season, with true freshman Brad Kaaya starting at quarterback. Virginia also has seen the same, with unproven quarterbacks Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns.

But Virginia also is going with a running back by committee approach, similar to Clemson. Producing a 1,000-yard rusher when going that route becomes more difficult. Still, neither team is getting much production out of any of its backs.

Virginia ranks 11th in the ACC in yards per rush (3.81), while Clemson is 13th (3.53). The Hoos have just 15 runs of 10 or more yards, while Clemson has 11.

“As a running back, you always want to have those home runs, and when you don’t get them, you think back and wonder what’s going on?” said Clemson back C.J. Davidson, who leads the team with 133 yards rushing. “But just by watching film, I know we’re a few steps or a few plays away from having those plays.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says he would love one of his backs to step up and emerge “but we’re not quite there yet after four games.”

Virginia has relied on Parks, Taquan Mizzell and Khalek Shepherd -- all three have 35-plus carries. But Parks started off slowly against FBS competition last year, too, before hitting his stride. He reeled off three straight 100-yard games to close the season.

The better news now is that Virginia already has more wins than all of 2013, a trade-off Parks gladly will make.

“We’re winning. Yards will come,” Parks said. “For me, I just try to let the game come to me and see what I get.”

ACC morning links

October, 1, 2014
Oct 1
8:00
AM ET
The situation in Michigan with the “probable mild concussion” of quarterback Shane Morris has brought head injuries back into the public consciousness. There was clearly a breakdown on the Wolverines’ sideline Saturday and, as a result, within the athletic department the last few days.

At Florida State, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher addressed how the nation’s top-ranked team deals with in-game concussions. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and running back Mario Pender missed Saturday’s game with concussions, and freshman Trey Marshall left the game with a concussion.

“If there’s anything it comes to me and then it’s up to [doctors] and they make a decision when a guy goes back in. It has nothing to do with me,” Fisher said. “We get [the player] directly to them and they come to me and say ‘It’s OK’ or ‘There’s no chance.’

“… That’s doctors. It has nothing to do with me, and I don’t want that responsibility. There’s no game or no situation that’s worth it, if a coach knows [of a concussed player]. I don’t know the circumstances [at Michigan]. A doctor, that’s his expertise. … I want to have the best for these guys and that’s an expert.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said the Tigers have a “monstrous medical staff. We have doctors for doctors.”

While the last few days in Michigan have not put the school or athletic department in a positive light, hopefully this leads to more knowledge and a better response for the future.

Here are a few more ACC links:
Coaches talk about plowing forward after tough losses. If not, they would drive themselves crazy with all the talk of what could have been.

One slightly better throw here. Another choice on fourth-and-short there. One perfectly snapped ball here. Another secured football there. A different starting quarterback here …

What could have been, Clemson.

Instead, the Tigers lived up to their reputation and failed to secure a winnable game, giving Florida State a 23-17 overtime victory and control of the Atlantic Division. Coach Dabo Swinney called it one of the most difficult losses he has had to stomach, precisely because of all those what-could-have-been moments.

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney
AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser"We wish we were 3-0 right now, but I don't have any doubt ... we're coaching a much better team today than we were when we started the season, and it's going to pay dividends," Dabo Swinney said.
The game was so tantalizingly close, placed on a tee for the Tigers to steal away. With Jameis Winston on the sideline, Clemson outplayed Florida State for a vast majority of Saturday night. The Tigers looked in control with two minutes left, needing just a field goal to win.

But for the second time this season, the Tigers failed to finish.

So Clemson sits 1-2 with losses to No. 12 Georgia and No. 1 Florida State, outside the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2011, its streak of 50 consecutive poll appearances broken.

Now, the Tigers have to pick up the pieces in September, knowing full well their championship hopes remain as distant as Mars or Pluto. As embarrassing as their home loss to Florida State was last season, this one delivered more pain.

They were on the 1-yard line, and gave away their destiny.

“It’s very heartbreaking,” Swinney reflected on his Sunday teleconference. “We work really hard and when you’re in position to win and we don’t get it done, it’s heartbreaking for all of us, but we’ve played two top-12 teams at their place in our first three games. …

“We wish we were 3-0 right now, but I don’t have any doubt that our experience in these first three weeks, and what I’m seeing with our team, we’re coaching a much better team today than we were when we started the season, and it’s going to pay dividends.”

Clemson probably never anticipated when it agreed to a series with Georgia that the ACC would also schedule its ACC opener against Florida State just a few weeks later. That meant Clemson had to open the season with two of its first three games on the road against Top 12 opponents for the first time since 1966.

The last team to face that challenge from the ACC was North Carolina, back in 2001 (losses to No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 Texas).

Yet Clemson had its opportunities to beat both Georgia and Florida State. The Tigers were tied with the Bulldogs at halftime, but fell apart in the second half. Its offense could not move the ball consistently with Cole Stoudt behind center. Perhaps stubbornly, the Clemson coaches only gave freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson one series in the second half while the game remained competitive.

The defense, meanwhile, missed tackles and had a host of mental errors as it failed to contain Todd Gurley. Special-teams breakdowns were everywhere.

The miscues were different Saturday against Florida State but just as frustrating. Clemson led 10-3 at halftime and had multiple chances to win. While the defense was vastly improved over the Georgia game, the offense stalled too much in the red zone. Ammon Lakip missed crucial kicks against Georgia and Florida State, and has now become a liability.

If Clemson had a sure kicker, it may not have tried to force another run with time ticking down in regulation, a play that resulted in a lost fumble and overtime. And maybe the Tigers line up for a field goal rather than fourth-and-short in overtime, a play that was snuffed out in large part because Clemson decided to run out of a shotgun formation.

There we go with "what could have been" again.

Clemson remains one of the most talented teams in the ACC, and should be back in the Top 25 again this season. There are positives to be taken away from the Florida State game. Watson is now the starting quarterback. There is impressive talent at receiver. The defense played its best game of the season, with five sacks, 10 tackles for loss and just 318 total yards allowed (13 rushing).

The Tigers should be favored in their remaining ACC games, and against Georgia State on Nov. 22. If they win all those, they will have a chance at another 10-win season in their regular-season finale at home against South Carolina. The Gamecocks have looked mighty vulnerable this season, a fact that has not gone unnoticed among the Clemson faithful.

But that is looking way too far ahead. The mission now is squarely on North Carolina, and leaving all those "what could have beens" behind.

Clemson's Watson proves a quick study

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
1:00
PM ET
His teammates called him “Rook” -- short for “rookie” -- back when Deshaun Watson was starting as a 14-year-old freshman at Gainesville High. The nickname stuck, but it was never an apt moniker.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail/Mark CrammerClemson fans would like to see highly-touted QB Deshaun Watson take the field sooner rather than later.
 His first start was against the defending state champions, but Watson was never flustered. After his first four games, he’d already become a star, and when head coach Bruce Miller called him into his office to talk about handling success, Watson simply shrugged.

“Don’t get a big head,” Miller told him. “I never have,” the 14-year-old shot back.

By the time his high school career was over, Watson had thrown for more than 13,000 yards, run for another 4,400 and produced 218 touchdowns, but during Christmas break last year, just days before his college career would begin at Clemson, Watson called up his quarterback coach and asked to meet him at the field. He wanted to throw for a while.

Watson was the top quarterback recruit in the country last year, a perfect mix of poise, presence, arm strength and athleticism. But if there’s a secret ingredient that sets Watson apart, it's that maturity. The kid has always played beyond his years.

“He watches film like an NFL veteran,” Miller said. “He just knows so much, and he’s so gifted athletically, I’m not sure he couldn’t pick up a set of golf clubs and go play par. He’s just a gifted athlete with a very special personality.”

It’s no wonder then that just two games into his Clemson career, a vocal contingent of Tigers fans are ready to see Watson ascend to the throne as the team’s QB1, and Dabo Swinney is left to deflect the spotlight that inevitably comes with a quarterback controversy.

To hear Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris tell it, there is no debate. Cole Stoudt won the job in the spring, won it again this fall, and the senior who spent three years toiling in Tajh Boyd’s shadow has played well enough to keep the job so far. But that’s all the practical logic. Fans have seen the future and they want more.

Maybe it was Watson's bullet to Charone Peake in the end zone, as pretty a pass as Boyd threw in three years as the most prolific QB in Clemson history. It came on just the third pass of Watson’s career.

Maybe it was the swagger that Watson exuded each time he trotted onto the field in the glorified scrimmage against South Carolina State a week later, leading four touchdown drives in four chances.

Maybe it’s the sales pitch Clemson’s coaches had already delivered so many times in the previous nine months, touting Watson as a can’t-miss talent who would, one day, lead Clemson to the promised land.

“We have a guy [in Stoudt] that won the job clearly, and he’s our guy,” Swinney said. “But we have this other guy in Deshaun that has just, from the time he got here, has gotten better and better. He’s closed the gap. There’s not a lot of drop-off.”

That’s not to say Swinney is ceding ground to the rabble calling for the Watson era at Clemson to begin now.

Away from the prying eyes of the public, Stoudt has shined and Watson has, at times, looked every bit like a rookie.

“His first week-and-a-half of camp, it was really bad,” Swinney said. “But that last week, man, he came on. He did not win the job. But you can't just make a guy a starter on potential. It doesn't work that way. Guys have to earn things.”

[+] EnlargeCole Stoudt
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsDespite Watson's progress, coach Dabo Swinney says Cole Stoudt remains his starter.
 Stoudt earned the job. But in these first two games -- a loss at Georgia and a drubbing of an FCS team -- Watson has looked awfully sharp.

Stoudt has one touchdown throw after 60 attempts. Four of Watson’s 13 passes have gone for scores.

On throws of 10 yards or more, Watson is 5-of-8 with two touchdowns. Stoudt is 5-of-17, including an interception.

Stoudt can run a little, but Watson is a weapon with his legs -- a talent he’s yet to fully demonstrate, but a skill that fits Morris’ game plan perfectly.

That’s the other mark in Watson’s column. He’s the new face in the locker room, but Morris’ playbook is old hat. At Gainesville High, Watson ran virtually the same offense.

“He’s been doing [it] since he was 14,” Swinney said. “The learning curve was very small as far as running the zone-read, the snap, the cadence, the timing of the snap, the shifts, the tempo we play at, reading first level, second level, third level. It was second nature to him.”

And so the rumblings get louder and, as Clemson prepares for its showdown against No. 1 Florida State, the program feels like it’s at a crossroads. Stoudt will be the starter, but his performance Saturday may well dictate the direction of the program. If he’s good and Clemson wins, it’s easy for Swinney to remain patient. If he struggles and the Tigers fall, it becomes harder to draw a distinction between Clemson’s present and future. And no matter what, Watson will play Saturday and have another chance to shine on a big stage.

“I wasn’t expecting to get as much playing time as I am right now, to be honest,” Watson said. “I always work to compete and play. You don’t want to sit on the sideline and watch. You want to be out there playing. So any time I have an opportunity I want to take advantage of it.”

He has, and that’s why there’s a debate now. That’s a good thing, Swinney insists. He says there’s “an urgency” at quarterback that hasn’t existed at Clemson in a long time, a battle between a veteran in his waning days with the program and a freshman whose future seems limitless. That’s fun, not controversial.

Watson hasn’t stoked those fires, either. He wants the starting job, but he’s not campaigning for it.

“He’s Cole’s biggest supporter,” Morris said. “They’re a great tandem together.”

How the dynamics of that tandem will work on the field Saturday remains covert information. Morris says there’s a plan in place for Saturday and beyond, but he isn’t sharing, and Watson insists even he doesn’t know how much playing time he’ll see against Florida State.

What’s clear is that Watson intends to take advantage of the opportunities he'll get. He’s proven, Morris said, that no moment is too big for him.

“He’s to the Nth degree of what you want in a quarterback,” Swinney said. “He’s got everything. There’s nothing this man lacks to be a great quarterback, but he’s also the type of person you want as a leader of your program. He’s on his way to quite a career, and it’s going to be fun to watch this young man blossom.”

It’s just a matter of time. Everyone agrees on that. The question is simply whether the time is now.

Clemson has not had much luck against Florida State over the past few years, a high hurdle that coach Dabo Swinney knows he must clear.

He may have gotten a little help in their matchup Saturday night. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston will sit out the first half for yelling obscenities on campus, opening the game right up for Clemson to steal.

The week did not exactly start with many people believing the Tigers could pull the upset. They have lost three of their last four games against Florida State -- including an embarrassing 51-14 loss at home last season -- and were a 20-point underdog on Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyDabo Swinney needs a victory over Florida State regardless of which Noles play in which half.
While it is easy to infer that the punishment is a slap at Clemson -- hey, look, we can beat you with our backup quarterback! -- Florida State would have presumably made the same call no matter who was on the schedule this weekend.

It just so happens to be the biggest game of the season for both teams. The winner of this game has gone on to play for the ACC championship the last five seasons, bumping up not only league title stakes but College Football Playoff stakes as well.

While every team wants to get credit for beating its opponent at full strength, Clemson has to take advantage of the opportunity that awaits. That means its supremely hyped defense needs to seize the moment.

All eyes must be on a veteran defensive line that saw its players take 3,079 combined snaps last season. Vic Beasley has had a quiet start to the season. It's time for him to make some noise. The same goes for Grady Jarrett and all the rest. So far, Clemson has 19 tackles for loss on the season -- but only five in the opener against Georgia. The game against the Bulldogs was a mixed bag for the defense. While the Tigers started off well, they fell apart in the second half and allowed Todd Gurley to have a field day.

While the offense did not make enough first downs to help keep the defense off the field, defensive coordinator Brent Venables has said he was disappointed with the fourth quarter. Clemson had 13 missed tackles in the final 16 minutes of that game as players got tired and less aggressive. Florida State essentially owned the Clemson defensive front a year ago. Virtually the same groups of players return on both sides. While the Seminoles have not played up to standards on the offensive line, Clemson cannot allow Florida State to be the more physical group again.

Especially with Winston out.

Because a victory with Winston out for a half still counts, especially if Clemson can shut him down in the second half.

Detractors may want to downplay it if the Tigers win in Tallahassee for the first time since 2006. But that should not matter. An asterisk will not go into the record book next to this game (*-Winston played only a half).

A W will. A W that would allow Swinney to leap over one hurdle and allow Clemson to control its ACC destiny.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- We leave you alone for one weekend, ACC, and this is what you do. That has to be what Clemson and Florida State were thinking as they checked box scores Sunday morning after their bye week.

Virginia Tech loses all team and conference momentum with a home loss to East Carolina. Georgia Southern was once again 90 seconds from upsetting an ACC team. Louisville, who many felt was now Florida State's biggest threat to an undefeated season, loses at Virginia. And, off all teams, it was reeling Boston College left to extinguish the flames, and the Eagles salvaged the Saturday with the biggest upset of the season, according to the Football Power Index, with a bulldozing of No. 9 USC, shocking even the staunchest ACC supporters.

So here we are, at the outset of Week 4 and exactly where we thought we would be before the season kicked off: the ACC seemingly comes down to Clemson and Florida State for the third consecutive season. The two will play in prime time Saturday, and the winner controls its destiny in the Atlantic Division and, with the lack of clarity in the Coastal, conference.

It is what we have grown accustom in the ACC as of late as both programs have been on a similar linear ascent to the top of the conference. Only the Tigers and Seminoles have represented the Atlantic in the ACC championship game since 2009, but the Coastal was superior then. Now, the two have won the past three conference titles and that looks to be the case once again in 2014, too.

Except this year, winning the conference has an entirely new significance. A College Football Playoff invitation is on the line now. Technically, the ACC has seven undefeated teams, but Clemson and Florida State are the conference's prized horses capable of carrying the league to the inaugural final four. The other five would likely need an undefeated run, and that's a wager I'm not sure anyone outside of Atlanta, Pittsburgh, central New York or the Triangle is willing to make right now.

"There's no doubt" the Tigers are a rival, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said. "...It's a game in which you like to be at Florida State to play in because of the ramifications and the national attention it brings."

Despite No. 22 Clemson entering the game with a loss, the national implications will be near the level it was last season because of the dawn of the playoff era. There's the sense conference titles won't mean what they used to for the elite programs, and Fisher has said as much multiple times, pondering whether fans will deem any playoff-less season as a failure. And for two teams that have each won conference titles and played in multiple BCS games the past few seasons, there is the argument that a conference title might not be enough, especially for Florida State.

If Clemson loses big, it almost certainly ends the Tigers' playoff hopes. A Florida State loss and now the nation's top-ranked program and the conference's best chance at a playoff bid needs to not only play close to perfect football against a tough remaining slate but solicit help from the supernatural to even play in the conference championship.

It might only be September but the ACC's playoff chances potentially hinge on this game between conference heavyweights.

ACC morning links

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
8:00
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Is it time to start worrying about Florida State?

I was having that discussion Sunday afternoon and felt it is still too early to make any meaningful determination on the Seminoles. After all, our Brad Edwards has Florida State still in his predicted playoff field even if the Seminoles did drop to No. 4 in the Football Power Index (FPI).

Everyone agrees Florida State has not been as dominant as most expected, but Oklahoma State, despite the lineup overhaul, is probably better than many gave the Cowboys credit for. It's not as if the Seminoles played poorly in Dallas either, but rather did not win in a convincing manner.

In Week 2, Florida State beat The Citadel 37-12, and the defense struggled at times in the first half. But The Citadel is an FCS opponent and a team that runs the option, and it can be tricky defending those teams with just a week of practice.

ESPN metrics, however, raises questions on the Seminoles' defense. According to ESPN's defensive efficiency, which measures how many points a defense contributes to its team's net scoring margin and adjusts for the strength of opposing offenses, Florida State is ranked 85th among FBS teams. They Seminoles led the country in defensive efficiency last season.

I'm still not ready to judge Florida State based on the season's first two weeks, although it's clear this team has legitimate concerns. Every team does.

What is worth keeping an eye on is Florida State's schedule might be tougher than originally thought. Florida, Louisville and Notre Dame look to be bigger challenges as the three have combined to start the season 5-0 with a convincing win in each game. The FPI originally gave Florida State a 38 percent chance to finish the regular season undefeated, but that number has dropped to 13 percent.

Before the season began, the FPI gave Florida State a 94 percent chance to beat Notre Dame. That percentage has now dropped to 66. Their chances of winning dropped double-digit percentage points against Clemson (13 percentage points), Florida (20) and Louisville (17), too, according to the ESPN Production Analytics Team. The Seminoles' next game is Sept. 20 against Clemson.

Is Florida State as good as advertised this preseason? It's still probably too early to tell. What is clear is the Seminoles' road to a second undefeated season is much tougher, and that could pose the biggest threat.

Here are a few more links to help kick off Week 3:

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