The Clemson Tigers made a strong closing argument to the College Football Playoff committee by defeating the Pittsburgh Panthers, 42-10, to win the ACC Championship at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Saturday.
Travis Etienne led the way for the Tigers with 156 yards and two scores on the ground, and Trevor Lawrence threw for 118 yards and two touchdowns as well.
It marks Clemson's fourth consecutive ACC title.
Travis Etienne Key to Clemson's College Football Playoff Success
Clemson dealt with quarterback uncertainty at times this season, but as long as Etienne is healthy, the offense is in good hands.
Etienne entered the ACC title game with 1,308 yards and 20 total touchdowns (19 rushing). All he did on Saturday was take the ball 75 yards to the house on the first play from scrimmage and then find the end zone on his next carry.
Just like that, the Tigers were up 14-0.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence was just 7-of-14 for 52 yards at halftime, and yet, Clemson had put up 28 points. That was because Etienne (and the defense) was making plays all over the field.
After putting up 156 yards, the 5'10", 200-pound sophomore has seven 100-yard performances this year. He hit a midseason lull, but he has gotten it going again at the right time, averaging 123.6 yards over the last five games.
Incredibly, Etienne only has two contests in which he carried the ball more than 15 times. He'd still put up big numbers, though, because he picked up 8.0 yards per carry entering Saturday.
Lawrence has been solid under center this season since he replaced Kelly Bryant in late September, completing 65 percent (200 of 302) of his passes for 2,606 yards and 24 touchdowns. Not only that, but the freshman has also taken care of the football, throwing just four interceptions.
Ultimately, though, Etienne has to be the difference-maker on offense. He can help open up the passing game by picking up yards in chunks on the ground, and he can milk the clock late in games.
Clemson will have to hope a month off doesn't cool off Etienne. If he can pick up where he left off in Charlotte, the Tigers will give opposing defenses headaches in the playoff.
Tigers' Dominant Defense Proves South Carolina Game Was an Aberration
Head coach Dabo Swinney has built a defensive powerhouse at Clemson, and this year's squad had been no different—until last week.
Going up against a 6-4 South Carolina squad, the Tigers allowed the Gamecocks to put up 600 total yards (510 passing) and 35 points. Fortunately, the offense piled up 744 yards and 56 points of its own, leading to a 21-point victory. But that rough performance gave Clemson fans reason to worry as the stakes were set to increase dramatically.
Well, the Tigers defense quickly regained its old form and set the tone early in this game.
Pitt started the game by struggling to get anything going on offense, having lost—not gained, lost—a total of 27 yards on its three possessions. That resulted in two three-and-outs and a fumble.
And that's how to dig an early hole against a top team.
The Panthers had an extremely tough time moving the ball through the air, managing just five passing yards for the first two-and-a-half quarters. They finished the game with just eight passing yards and 200 total yards.
While Etienne got the Tigers off to a fast start, the defense played a big part in helping build on the lead. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins set up Etienne's second touchdown by returning a first-quarter fumble to the Pittsburgh 3-yard line, and cornerback A.J. Terrell helped Clemson take an 18-point lead into the locker room by taking an interception back to the Panthers' 10-yard line in the final minute of the first half.
That type of performance was more reminiscent of a defense that allowed just 12.1 points per game through the first 11 weeks of the season rather than the one that got shredded for 600 yards and 35 points a week ago.
Clemson has held opponents to 10 points or fewer a whopping eight times this season. If there is a troubling trend, it's the fact that the Tigers defense hasn't been as stout against SEC opponents. Texas A&M (26 points) and South Carolina (35) have managed the two highest outputs of the season against Clemson. Considering the SEC will have at least one team (Alabama), and possibly two (Georgia), in the playoff, that could loom large.
Regardless of who the opponent turns out to be, Clemson can head into its layoff on a strong bounce-back effort by the defense.
Clemson (13-0) will have to tune into Sunday's College Football Playoff selection show to see if it is officially in the playoff for the fourth straight year. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh (7-6) must wait to see what bowl game it will be invited to.