CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — No. 5 Clemson entered the season with several questions and doubters galore. Less than halfway through the season, the Tigers are in control of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Clemson knocked off its second straight ranked ACC Atlantic opponent with a 30-20 victory over No. 14 North Carolina State on Saturday night. Combined with its 51-45 overtime win against No. 15 Wake Forest a week earlier, the Tigers are again the front-runner for another league championship and looking like a contender for the College Football Playoff.
New No. 1 Alabama still has games against top-10 opponents in No. 8 Tennessee and No. 9 Mississippi.
No. 2 Georgia, the defending national champions, also must face the Vols, No. 13 Kentucky and maybe the Crimson Tide in the Southeastern Conference title game.
No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan will settle things against each other next month.
Clemson may have the cleanest path to college football’s final four among the current AP top five.
The Tigers (5-0, 3-0) aren’t a finished product, coach Dabo Swinney said, but “this team is getting better.”
Several weren’t sure that would happen this season.
Quarterback DJ Uiagalelei was a mess whose five-star talent had gotten lost in 2021. Clemson’s receivers were largely inconsistent, and its back seven on defense was mostly new starters who hadn’t lived up to those players who took the Tigers to six ACC titles, six CFP trips and two national crowns from 2015-20.
But last season’s issues are starting to straighten out, especially on offense.
Suddenly, a perfect season doesn’t look so farfetched.
“We’ve got a lot of things to clean up,” said Uiagalelei, who ran for two touchdowns and threw for another against the Wolfpack. “But we’ll continue to put in the work to do that.”
Clemson’s schedule takes the Tigers on the road against struggling Boston College and one-loss Florida State the next two weeks.
The Tigers’ only ranked opponent left is No. 22 Syracuse, the ACC’s only other 5-0 team, on Oct. 22. But the Orange have lost eight of nine games to Clemson since joining the conference in 2013.
November brings Clemson what figured to be some of its most difficult hurdles, with a trip to Notre Dame on Nov. 5 followed by home games against Louisville and Miami to close league play.
But the Fighting Irish are 2-2 and neither Louisville nor Miami is a lock to even make a bowl game.
Clemson closes the season as usual with its Palmetto State rivalry game against South Carolina. The Tigers have owned things recently, winning seven in a row over the Gamecocks.
A return to the ACC title game as Atlantic Division champs for Clemson would match the Tigers against the winner of a Coastal Division with no ranked teams.
Clemson defensive end K.J. Henry said it’s too soon to look that far ahead. The Tigers have risen to the top with a disciplined approach where the only thing that matters is what’s directly in front of them.
“We took a great step forward” against North Carolina State, Henry said. “We’ve got some self-inflicting issues that we have to work our way out of, but that killer mindset was there all night.”
Clemson does have its issues. Unlike last year, Uiagalelei isn’t among them. He’s thrown for 11 touchdowns through five games, two more than all of last season — his first as a starter.
Uiagalelei led the Tigers with 73 yards rushing Saturday, including a nifty 9-yard run off a bootleg for a 30-13 lead that sealed the win with three minutes left.
Clemson’s defense has been missing key players the past several weeks.
All-ACC lineman Bryan Bresee missed his second game in three weeks against N.C. State. The first came after the death of his 15-year-old sister, Ella, from brain cancer last month. The latest, Saturday, was when Bresee needed medical tests and observation for what the school said was a non-football issue.
Swinney said the family received good news from the tests and he hoped to get Bresee back this week.
“We feel when we play up to our best.we’re going to a problem.”
And back to chasing championships.