CHARLOTTE, N.C. — You could pick a play, perhaps one of the five touchdowns or one of three forced turnovers, and declare it the moment Clemson's 38-3 destruction of Miami in the ACC Championship Game began.
In truth, however, it started much earlier than that. It began when the teams shared the Bank of America Stadium field in warm-ups Saturday, when Clemson's next batch of talent, a group that wasn't supposed to be this good this quickly, looked the part of college football's most dominant force.
It wasn't Alabama, the greatest given of the past five years and the constant engine driving the sport. At least not Saturday night. It was the team that conquered the Crimson Tide on the grandest stage imaginable only to position itself for yet another run 11 months later.
This was a rebuilding year, they said. This was a bridge year to another run.
But there was starting quarterback Kelly Bryant, a 6'4", 220-pound force, the player who couldn't possibly fill the enormous shoes of dynasty architect Deshaun Watson, lobbing passes to 6'5", 205-pound sophomore wideout Diondre Overton, the Tigers' star in training.
There was 6'4", 340-pound defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, just a sophomore, wearing a cutoff shirt and headphones, moving his tremendous body with the kind of grace no 340-pound man should have.
There was his teammate and mentor Christian Wilkins, the 300-pound heart and soul of the defense, catching footballs over his shoulder with that trademark smile cemented across his face.
Everywhere you turned there was size and speed and overwhelming confidence—the kind of confidence that one wouldn't expect on a team with only six senior players on scholarship. The kind of athletes who have made winning on a stage this big almost assumed.
Somewhat seamlessly, Clemson has constructed the greatest assembly line in college football. And there it was, the present and the future on display all at once, 60 minutes before the Tigers clinched their third playoff appearance in as many years.
"Our depth has developed, so we've just become a very functional team," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said following the win. "We have great chemistry. These guys are having a lot of fun late in the season. It's a grind for them. But we've still found a way to have great energy at practice and great focus."
The game itself could be summed up in a single sequence. Not Clemson's opening drive, which ended in a four-yard touchdown run for Travis Etienne that felt like it set the tone for the rest of the game.
Not Bryant's first 15 throws, all of which were completions, which set an ACC Championship Game record previously held by none other than the quarterback he replaced. Not the beautiful ball Kelly dropped over wideout Deon Cain's shoulder deep in the third quarter that helped push the deficit to 38-0.
It came with less than four minutes remaining, when Miami kicked a field goal to avoid a shutout. By that time, the Tigers' third- and fourth-stringers, stars of the future, were on the field, trying to maximize their reps. The 35 points that separated the teams somehow failed to capture just how lopsided the game was.
"It just really shows the type of team we have, a bunch of guys that have bought in, go out there to finish the way we want to finish, never satisfied," Bryant said after the victory. "We're still working to finish the way we want to finish."
When the game finally ended, Swinney cradled the ACC championship trophy football under his arm on stage, the orange Gatorade still dripping off his white sweatshirt. While these moments still feel new and natural each time through, this sort of thing is becoming increasingly familiar with Clemson.
It's not the fact the Tigers have managed to win at this level with so many new faces. It's that they also feature a delightful brand of a football that manages to be explosive and suffocating all at once.
"Really proud of our team," Swinney added. "Courage, heart. Look forward to playing another one here in about a month."
Debate regarding the College Football Playoff field will unquestionably rage deep into Sunday, when Clemson will learn its opponent for the semifinal. But coming out of the ACC Championship Game, a matchup that wasn't much of a game at all, there will be no questions about whether Clemson is one of the top four teams.
While the Tigers were expected to win in Charlotte, the nature of this game served as much more than one final resume boost. It was a magnificent, overpowering statement—one that will unquestionably act as a notice over the next month and beyond.