Clemson's Gutsy Victory Shows Why Winning Ugly Is a Beautiful Thing

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterOctober 2, 2016

CLEMSON, SC - OCTOBER 01:  Jordan Leggett #16 of the Clemson Tigers reacts after his fourth quarter go-ahead touchdown against the Louisville Cardinals at Memorial Stadium on October 1, 2016 in Clemson, South Carolina. The Clemson Tigers defeated the Louisville Cardinals 42-36.  (Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images)
Tyler Smith/Getty Images

At some point during a dream season, everything will catch fire.

Walls will crumble. The foundation will sway back and forth, sometimes violently. Hope will be lost, albeit briefly.

Everything will come dangerously close to coming undone until somehow, through methods that are of no importance, order is restored just in the nick of time.

On Saturday night, Clemson blew what was thought to be an insurmountable 18-point halftime lead against Louisville. Then it caught fire, winning 42-36.

Deshaun Watson threw three interceptions. He missed throws he rarely misses. At times, he looked more mortal than ever.

The defense, which was so dominant for the first 30 minutes, eventually wore down. The pass rush slowed. Louisville's wide receivers found space.

Lamar Jackson, the most electric and dominant player in college football, did what he has done to everyone this year.

Jackson single-handedly tore down these walls and shook Clemson's foundation. In the second half, he found that zone. Even his completions were captivating. His 457 total yards and three touchdowns felt like they were going to be the primary bullet points in a column about Louisville's rise to the top of the football mountain.

But then—flipping the script entirely—Clemson rallied after losing control and falling behind by eight points. Then the lead was two.

Then the Tigers won a brilliant, ugly game.

Deshaun Watson
Deshaun WatsonGrant Halverson/Getty Images

"At the end of the day, you either have the heart or you don't," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said on the telecast following the win. "You either have the will or you don't."

There is a misconception when it comes to winning ugly. That term doesn't sit well with many.

Some assume this to be an insult. It's as if a quality or ownership of the win is being undermined. That couldn't be further from the truth.

Winning ugly—through skill or luck or perseverance or by whatever means necessary—is a part of this journey. This is where it starts. To see how far a team can travel, one must first witness how far it can be pushed.

Oh, those Saturday afternoon blowouts are carefree and jovial. When an overmatched team is dismembered sometime early on in the first half and the starters spend much of the fourth quarter on the bench with their headsets on, smiling until the final whistle, dominance is assumed by a lopsided scoreboard.

But this is not true dominance. This trait is unearthed amid chaos and turmoil.

Until the quality of opponent is elevated—as it was on Saturday for Clemson—one cannot know where that breaking point is.

Until a team is thrown out of rhythm and nearing annihilation, which Clemson was given the expectations entering the year, the rest is inconsequential.

"We want to be 12-0," Swinney added. "But you can't win 12 until you win five."

Dabo Swinney
Dabo SwinneyTyler Smith/Getty Images

Survival is what matters. Not style points or turnovers. Not yardage or touchdowns or Heisman implications.

Winning at the level Clemson is expected to with such a deep, gifted roster is hard enough as is.

Conquering an upstart team like Louisville, a team with the most electric player in the sport, and which could still factor in future College Football Playoff discussions a few months from now, demands something more.

When we look back on Week 5, we will remember the moments that could have gone a different direction.

We will look back on Jourdan Lewis' spectacular one-handed interception against Wisconsin. This play, perhaps the catch of the young season, secured a 14-7 victory for Michigan that was unquestionably ugly at times:

It was the first time all season the Wolverines looked vulnerable. But again, all that matters is the record attached.

We will look back on Tennessee's thrilling, back-and-forth triumph over Georgia that was decided on the second Hail Mary of the day.

Not just of the day, but of this game:

Sure, this one demanded a little luck. Sometimes you need that too.

No team has made a living off winning ugly in 2016 more than Tennessee, although everything has gone according to plan. It doesn't matter how the win comes, remember? But Clemson's performance demanded something different.

It required one of the best environments in college football to play a significant, unusual role, which it did and often does.

It needed Watson—who many deem the face of college football—despite some early struggles, to deliver when he had to. He mustered up enough magic.

It demanded a defense that was out of juice to come up with one stop at the end of the game in the shadow of its own goal line. It did this too.

These are how championships are won. These are the moments that help script special seasons.

Wherever Clemson goes from here, no matter how a season in which the only acceptable outcome is a national championship unfolds, it will look back on this game.

The Tigers will remember that time when a game, once in hand, spiraled out of control. They will think long and hard about that one time everything was on fire. Until it wasn't.


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