CLEMSON, S.C. — No. 3 Clemson used a dramatic win at home over Notre Dame last year to kick start its run to the Atlantic Coast Conference title and the College Football Playoff. The Tigers’ 42-36 victory over No. 7 Louisville on Saturday night looks like a similar boost — and the Tigers appear to have few hurdles on the way back to the top.
“My mind is on the national championship,” Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson said.
Watson proved that against the Cardinals (4-1, 2-1 ACC), who overcame a 28-10 deficit to lead 36-28 in the final period. That’s when Watson, a Heisman Trophy favorite entering the season, took over by leading the Tigers (5-0, 2-0) to two touchdowns and throwing the last of his five TDs to wide open tight end Jordan Leggett with 3:14 to go for the winning points.
Clemson’s defense withstood a final push by Louisville, whose drive ended a yard short of a first down with 33 seconds to go. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney called it “Clemson tough.”
“We’re built for games like this,” he said.
These Tigers may be built for even more — and there’s little to slow down another run to the playoffs.
Clemson, which moved up two spots in the AP Top25 , has a stronghold on the ACC Atlantic Division, needing to lose at least twice to open the door for Louisville to play in the conference title game in Orlando, Florida.
The Tigers got a similar drama-filled win over the Fighting Irish , 24-22, when defensive tackle Carlos Watkins stopped quarterback Deshone Kizer short on a tying 2-point conversion at the end. Clemson’s offense took off after the victory, averaging more than 44 points and 554 yards a game the rest of the way.
“Even though we hadn’t been playing our best before the game or during the game, our guys never gave up their belief,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “They believed in each other that they could get it done.”
Like in 2015, the Tigers biggest regular-season hurdle appears to be Oct. 29 at Florida State, which was pummeled by Louisville last month and fell to North Carolina on an improbable 54-yard field goal as time expired. Clemson has not won in Tallahassee, Florida, since 2006 and dropped its last game there, 23-17, in overtime when Watson took over as the team’s starting quarterback.
Clemson starts the rest of its season Friday night at Boston College, which has not beaten the Tigers since 2010. The Tigers other remaining ACC foes — North Carolina State, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest — are a combined 0-11 against Clemson over the past four years.
Pitt has not faced Clemson since joining the ACC.
There’s also Clemson’s yearly season-closer with rival South Carolina. Just a few years ago, the Gamecocks had won five straight against the Tigers but don’t appear to have the offense in coach Will Muschamp’s first year to hand with Clemson’s playmakers.
The ACC title game could mean rematches from a year ago with Miami (58-0 Clemson win) or North Carolina (45-37 victory in the league championship). Or maybe Virginia Tech, which moved into the rankings at No. 25.
There are plenty of things to clean up. Watson had four turnovers (a fumble and a career-high three interceptions) against Louisville. Clemson’s defense bottled up Lamar Jackson and held the Cardinals to 205 yards in the opening half, then gave up 26 points on five straight second-half possessions to surrender the lead.
Louisville put up 568 yards, more than Clemson’s allowed to anyone over the past two season including to Alabama in the 45-40 national championship loss last January.
Swinney said that like last year, the Tigers are far from a finished product. Nor do they have to be right now. It’s a long season of ebbs and flows— and Swinney likes the flow his team has going right now.
“At the end of the day, you either have the heart or you don’t,” Swinney said. “You have the will to win or you don’t. What can you say?