CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson's fourth consecutive 3-0 start is no surprise. What has caught some off guard is how they have played.
The third-ranked Tigers' inconsistency and lack of crispness at times has been somewhat surprising for a team widely expected to earn a fourth straight Atlantic Coast Conference title and College Football Playoff berth.
Whether it's a secondary giving up too many big plays at Texas A&M or a slow-starting offense against Georgia Southern, Clemson has not looked like an unstoppable runaway train.
"We hoped to be 3-0 and we are," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "We have a lot of improving to do."
A year ago, Clemson had a 5-0 September that included decisive, signature wins at top-15 opponents in Louisville and Virginia Tech.
The weekend flew by like... pic.twitter.com/W4ccQ9buIx— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) September 17, 2018
Heading into this season, Clemson appeared loaded at many positions, particularly on the defensive line with four potential high-round NFL draft picks in ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, and tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence.
The secondary is led by NFL prospect cornerback Trayvon Mullen while the offensive line is anchored by another highly regarded player with pro potential in left tackle Mitch Hyatt.
Both the Tigers leading rusher Travis Etienne and starting quarterback Kelly Bryant are back this year.
Still, there have been many uncomfortable moments in the first three games.
The Aggies rallied from 28-13 down in the final quarter and had a chance to tie at the end of a 28-26 loss.
Clemson had three turnovers and were tied 0-0 after 15 minutes in its 38-7 win over Georgia Southern this past Saturday. It took the Tigers four tries inside the 2 yard line to gain its first TD of the game, something that angered coaches.
"We were disappointed in the turnovers and the slow start," co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said Monday. "We preach all the time, if we protect the ball, we're hard to stop."
Clemson, which totaled 595 yards against the Eagles, figures to get a sterner test when it opens ACC play at Georgia Tech (1-2) on Saturday.
Running back Adam Choice, who had a first-quarter fumble last game, said the offense was moving the ball, but committed crucial mistakes that killed off potential scoring drives.
"That's something we're going to work on this week," he said.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables said his starting defensive line has worked hard and played at high level already in the face of enormous expectations.
"They have a lot of pride in what they do," Venables said. "Always have."
The group should help slow down the Yellow Jackets' option offense, which leads the country at 392 yards rushing per game.
Georgia Tech has lost two straight at South Florida and Pitt coming in against the Top-3 Tigers.
Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson said his team is out of synch in key times. "Right now for us, it has to be almost perfect" to advance the ball down the field, he said.
One thing Clemson is certain is not a problem with the offense is its two-quarterback shuffle between Bryant and skilled freshman Trevor Lawrence.
The two have shared time — Bryant's thrown 44 passes while Lawrence has thrown 42 — in the Tigers first three games and Scott, the co-offensive coordinator, said coaches and players understand the QB rotation could continue for a while.
"We're very comfortable with that," he said.
Lawrence played more against Georgia Southern after Bryant suffered a chest bruise in the second quarter. Bryant, a senior, did not play the second half, although Swinney said he's OK and good to go against Georgia Tech.
Swinney was bothered by his team's so-so execution on offense and pledged that it will get better as the season continues.
"We want that hunger to finish these drives, to get all that's there," he said.