There’s an old adage in sports: Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. There’s truth in that, for sure.
Put them together, and the confluence of the two often produces surprising results.
Just ask N.C. State, which was both Saturday in knocking off No. 9 Clemson 27-21 in double overtime and handing the Tigers their second loss in four weeks. The result also blew the race for the ACC title wide open.
N.C. State made a defensive stop on fourth-and-5 in the second OT to seal the game and drop Clemson to 2-2 (1-1 ACC) on the season.
While the Tigers’ struggles are an anomaly in the context of recent seasons under coach Dabo Swinney, they’ve been common in the 2021 season, something Swinney readily admitted after Saturday’s loss.
Dabo Swinney: “It’s been a long time. It’s been a long time since we’ve been in a situation like this for sure.”
— Grace Raynor (@gmraynor) September 25, 2021
The situation, as Swinney alluded to, is this: Clemson has two regular-season losses for the first time since 2014.
Date of Clemson’s second loss
2020: Jan. 1
2017: Jan. 1
2021: Sept. 25
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) September 26, 2021
That was the last year Clemson missed the College Football Playoff. The Tigers are 81-9 since the start of the 2015 season with two CFP national championships and another two national title game berths. So it’s clear what the standard has become at Clemson.
It’s also clear to Swinney that this year’s edition of the Tigers is nowhere near that.
Dabo: “With the way we’ve performed, you’re gonna get criticism and you’re gonna get comments and things like that and you know what? That comes with the territory because the expectation and the standard at Clemson, who we are, we’re not meeting that. (CONT)
— Grace Raynor (@gmraynor) September 26, 2021
Some more context to a loss that will almost surely drop the Tigers out of the top 10 and likely out of playoff consideration:
- The Tigers had won 36 consecutive games against unranked opponents before Saturday. Their last loss to an unranked team was a 27-24 defeat at Syracuse in 2017.
- Clemson had won 36 consecutive games in the ACC prior to a loss last year at Notre Dame.
- N.C. State’s win was its first over the Tigers since 2011 and just its second since 2003 in a series Clemson leads 59-29-1 all time.
The offense has scored 38 points in three games against FBS competition this season, starting with just a field goal in a 10-3 loss to Georgia in Week 1. It managed just 14 last week in a win over Georgia Tech. It failed to gain 300 net yards in any of those contests, including just 214 against N.C. State. According to ESPN, the Tigers had no games under 300 from 2018-20.
Those offensive anomalies create a series of questions: Is DJ Uiagalelei still the answer at quarterback? How can the Tigers get more big plays from junior receiver Justyn Ross (9.9 yards per reception)? What will the coaches do at running back after Will Shipley suffered a knee injury Saturday?
Clemson has a lot to figure out as it looks up at Wake Forest, Louisville and N.C. State in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. The first attempt at getting back on track will take place next week when the Tigers take on 4-0 Boston College at home.