Who didn’t see this one coming? Correct answer: absolutely no one, almost.
Heading into the 2017 season, defending national champion Clemson and Florida State were the overwhelming picks to win the ACC Atlantic and the conference championship. Not only that, but they were viewed as the league’s only realistic shot at a return to the College Football Playoffs.
With the seventh week of the season almost entirely in the books, and thanks in large part to Clemson spitting the bit Friday night, it’s North Carolina State that’s seated somewhat comfortably in the divisional driver’s seat following an impressive 35-17 win at Pitt.
If the Wolfpack is to win its first-ever divisional its and its first conference championship since 1979, however, they still have a couple of hurdles to clear.
While they’ve already knocked off Florida State and Louisville, they still have to face Clemson. The good news on that front, though, is that the Wolfpack gets the Tigers at home. Their other three conference opponents, Boston College, North Carolina and Wake Forest, are at the moment a combined 2-8 in ACC play.
Even in the midst of a bitter defeat, Dabo Swinney may have gained a few more fans.
Favored by three-plus touchdowns on the road at the Carrier Dome, second-ranked and defending national champion Clemson headed back to the ACC’s version of Death Valley with a stunning three-point loss at the hands of Syracuse. Instead of being bitter in the aftermath of such a tough loss, though, the Tigers head coach instead showed his true colors.
First, Swinney appeared to mouth the words “I’m so happy for you” to his head-coaching counterpart, Dino Babers, in their on-field postgame embrace…
… and followed that up by heading into his vanquisher’s locker room to personally congratulate the Orange players on the football program’s biggest win in years.
“That’s one of the classiest things I’ve seen in my life,” ‘Cuse linebacker Zaire Franklin said according to ESPN.com. “To have been knocked down like that and have the humility to come talk to us, that was cool as hell.”
And classy as hell for good measure — as were his postgame comments to the media.
“We’re very disappointed, there’s a lot of pain in our locker room,” the Syracuse Post-Standard quoted the coach as saying. “But, listen, this is a story about Syracuse. This ain’t about Clemson. This is about Syracuse. They out-played us, out-coached us.”
Friday the 13th lived up to its reputation for No. 2 Clemson.
The Tigers lost their starting quarterback due to a concussion, saw their defense inexplicably get turned around in a track meet, had one of the worst fake punts of the season and never led all night long. More ghastly though, Clemson saw Syracuse secure the biggest victory of the Dino Babers era as the Orange looked like the better side from kickoff to the final whistle in a massive 27-24 upset that will shake up both ACC and College Football Playoff races.
Quarterback Eric Dungey led the way for the home team at the Carrier Dome, throwing for 278 yards and three touchdowns despite facing one of the best defensive lines in the country on every snap. He also provided an incredible dimension with his legs in rushing for 61 yards — including the game-sealing first down with just over 90 seconds to go. The fast-paced offense racked up numerous multi-play drives as the marched up and down the field from the opening kickoff and seemed to have an answer just about every time.
The Tigers simply did not come to play on Friday night, looking sluggish from the get go. Not helping matters was the loss of starting quarterback Kelly Bryant, who didn’t look fully healthy while dealing with an ankle injury and then suffered a concussion on a scramble just before halftime. While the run game of Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster both scored long touchdowns, there never was much of a rhythm to the offense as they stalled out on several drives.
Were it not for a Tanner Muse 63 yard scoop-and-score fumble return in the first half, things could have been even worse for the defending national champions.
If there is one silver lining for Dabo Swinney’s group it was that they were in a similar spot last season, losing to Pitt at home before eventually rallying to win the league and the national title. Things might be a little tougher this time around, but the path remains the same inside the division (and on the national stage) with games against a ranked N.C. State team and big name in Florida State still to come. Perhaps most crucially, a bye week awaits the team once they return back home and will provide some much needed rest after some significant injuries in the first half of the year.
Syracuse doesn’t really care about all that talk though, for there was nothing freaky on Friday for the Orange as they pulled off one of the memorable upsets of the season so far.
If there was going to be a trap game on Clemson’s schedule this season, you could probably point toward Georgia Tech’s visit at the end of the month. That might be a bit premature to say at the moment given how the No. 2 team in the country is struggling on the road at Syracuse on Friday night and may have lost their quarterback to an injury.
The Orange’s offense not surprisingly led the way at the fast track of the Carrier Dome as a result, helping the home team to a 17-14 lead at halftime in what is rapidly becoming a very interesting conference game.
Quarterback Eric Dungey was the trigger man for the ‘Cuse attack, which helped pick up chunk after chunk on one of the best defenses in the country. He finished the half with 193 yards and two scores through the air while also providing a solid threat with his legs in rushing for 47 yards as well. Despite the impressive stat line, he did suffer a minor leg injury on a quarterback sneak that could hamper his ability to keep things going in the second half.
While Dungey isn’t 100 percent, neither was his counterpart in Kelly Bryant. The Tigers’ QB was solid throwing the ball (12/17, 116 yards) but was not able to move around all that well with that balky ankle. Most pressing for the fans back at home was the fact that he was slammed to the turf just before the break, having to be helped off by trainers with what his coach later said was a concussion. Running back Tavien Feaster rushed for a 37 yard touchdown in what was otherwise the lone offensive highlight for a team that is playing a backup behind center the rest of the way.
As bad as things were (on both sides of the ball) for Dabo Swinney’s squad, it could have been a much bigger hole they were in had there not been a swing early in the second quarter. An offensive pass interference penalty wiped a touchdown off the board that would have put Syracuse up two touchdowns. Instead, just two plays later the Tigers ended up tying things up at 14-all on a rough mistake by the Orange when tailback Dontae Strickland fumbled while being tackled, allowing Tanner Muse to scoop and score from 63 yards out.
The Dome has been a strange place to play for many ACC teams over the years no matter how good or bad Syracuse has been and it seems like that could be the case following the first half. Perhaps a trip to the locker room will reignite the second-best team in the country but, through two quarters at least, the Tigers are looking mighty vulnerable on the road against an up-tempo offense that is putting up quite the fight on Friday night.
In the end, it was much ado about essentially nothing.
In the third quarter of No. 2 Clemson’s win over Wake Forest Saturday, starting quarterback Kelly Bryant went down with what was later confirmed as an injured left ankle. While the player himself was non-committal when it came to his availability for this Friday night’s game against Syracuse, Dabo Swinney indicated earlier in the week that he expects Kelly to play.
On the team’s injury report released Thursday night, Bryant was listed under the “Will Play” designation. Swinney subsequently declared the third-year junior “ready to go.”
The head coach made that declaration after Bryant had participated in practice ahead of the road trip to the Orange.
In his first full season as the starter, Bryant has completed just over 60 percent of his passes for 1,259 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. He also leads the team with 401 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on the ground.