CLEMSON, S.C. — One big weekend trumped two weeks of worry for No. 6 Clemson and got the Tigers back in the national championship picture.
Clemson (7-1, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) got about everything it needed Saturday with a dominating bounce-back win over Georgia Tech, a confident, healthy return from injured quarterback Kelly Bryant and a couple of timely losses from undefeated teams ranked above the Tigers.
"I think for us," Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said after the Tigers' 24-10 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday night, "a championship was on the line tonight."
One that had looked in doubt following the Tigers' shocking, 27-24 loss at Syracuse two weeks earlier.
Then second-ranked Clemson dropped in the rankings behind several undefeated programs that, if all things remained equal, it would have a hard time jumping to make the College Football Playoff for a third straight year.
Even before kickoff, the Tigers got some necessary help when Ohio State rallied past No. 2 Penn State 39-38 and surprising Iowa State defeated No. 4 TCU, 14-7 — two of those programs with perfect records who, if they won out, would've been in that final four before the Tigers (7-1, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference).
"If we want something, we're going to have to go get it," Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. "And we're one of the teams that has a chance and that's where we wanted to be."
It's the second straight season that Clemson got a little help from others to maintain its championship run. The 10-0 Tigers, ranked third and solidly in the playoff picture, were stunned at home by Pitt, 43-42, a loss that looked like it drop them like a stone down the rankings and out of the title chase. But later that day, No. 2 Michigan and No. 4 Washington also lost, giving Clemson a reset and keeping it among the top five the following week — a more forgiving and manageable spot from which it followed with five straight wins including an ACC and national championship.
It's hard to dispute that the Tigers are primed for a similar scenario this year and will give selectors things to consider when he first CFP rankings come out Tuesday.
The Georgia Tech win showed off the best attributes that led the Tigers to a 5-0 September, including wins over three top-15 opponents at the time in Auburn, Louisville and Virginia Tech.
Clemson's defense was dominant, short-circuiting Georgia Tech's triple-option offense that came in leading the ACC with 373 yards rushing a game. The Yellow Jackets managed just 198 yards on the ground and the Tigers had 11 tackles for loss.
The victory also saw the dynamic return of Bryant, who had left Clemson's previous two games early due to injuries. A sprained left ankle sidelined him in the third quarter of a win over Wake Forest on Oct. 7. Bryant's absence a week later at Syracuse with a concussion was more damaging to the Tigers, who without him could not rally past Syracuse and remain undefeated.
Tonight’s win was our 300th all-time at Death Valley!— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) October 29, 2017
Fans and analysts had plenty of questions since the Syracuse loss — Clemson had a bye last Saturday — about Bryant's health going forward. He put that to rest early with two first quarter touchdown passes that provided all the points the Tigers needed.
Bryant passed for 207 yards. He also led Clemson with 67 yards rushing.
"We felt like we weren't going to hold anything back," Bryant said. "I told the coaches I was ready to go and it didn't feel like I was in strain. I didn't feel like I was going to be limping out there. That was the game plan and we ran with it."
Clemson has more hurdles to get past for another championship season. It plays at North Carolina State next week with the winner in prime position to take the ACC Atlantic and play for a league title.
A resurgent Miami or revenge-minded Virginia Tech most likely await in the ACC title game. Swinney has no doubt that if Clemson wins out again, it will be part of the playoff field.
"All our goals are still in front of us," Swinney said. "And now we have the opportunity to achieve them."