When we started out this season with 40 freshmen, Notre Dame on the schedule, DJ Reader missing in action, and a lot of general uncertainty about DeShaun Watson's health, it's hard to imagine any fan, no matter how dyed-in-orange, was thinking national championship. I mean, I felt like we were going to be good; we'd rattle off six or seven straight wins, maybe drop one to Notre Dame or Florida State, end the season with 10 or 11 wins, and go to a good bowl game. The real year to watch this young team would be next year, I told myself.
And that's why I don't do well in Vegas. Watching the Tigers stand tall after a shaky, mistake-filled ACC championship game, a game that any previous edition of this team would've lost in one of four or five different ways, it was stunning to think about what they've accomplished this year, particularly in the last few weeks after vanquishing their most dangerous rival, Florida State.
Except for the 33-13 win over Wake Forest, there were moments in each of the final games of the 2015 season where Clemson could've given it all away. But each time, they bore down and got the job done, led by the best overall defense in college football and a quarterback who apparently cannot be rattled.
I watched every game of the 2015 season, and I do not recall seeing Watson acting unsure of himself. Not when Notre Dame fought back to within two points in the 4th quarter, not when the Tigers went into the locker room without the lead for the first time all season against the Seminoles, and certainly not when UNC threw everything they had at him during the ACC championship game. He simply handled each possession as best he could, sometimes with near-mechanical precision and sometimes with mystifying mistakes. But even during the most disastrous few minutes against the Tarheels, after punter Andy Teasdall made one of the worst decisions I've ever seen on a football field and the Tigers offense got hit with two false-start penalties in a row, turning a second-and-two into third-and-10, Watson simply refused to panic.
But that awful few minutes of football does bring me back to something I've been saying all season, and it's no less true now than it was in September. Clemson's biggest enemy is still Clemson. They've found a way to win every week, they're ACC champs, and they're headed to the playoffs, but there are still way too many moments of miscommunication, overthrows, fumbles, defensive lapses, and carelessness to make me feel like we're a lock for anything. The phrase "found a way to win" has been creeping into Dabo Swinney's post-game interviews more and more since the blowout against Miami, and that's disturbing for a team this talented.
Yes, this is a young team, but these are mistakes that the Tigers' next opponent or opponents will not let slide. Oklahoma is a fascinating matchup simply because of these two teams' recent history and the fact that Sooner QB Baker Mayfield might be the only quarterback in the country who can match Watson pass-for-pass, though Mayfield is a far inferior when he has to run the ball. But the higher up the mountain Clemson climbs (and they're only two steps from the top now), the more rarefied the air becomes and the less fallible mortals will be tolerated.