The Clemson Tigers have not only been a perennial powerhouse on the national scene since 2015, but they have straight up dominated the ACC in the same time frame. On a yearly basis, the ACC Championship has essentially been the Clemson Invitational since 2015. The Tigers have rolled the Coastal Division Champion every year, which includes outscoring opponents 145-30 in the last three contests.
Since 2015, however, the Tigers have benefitted from having two elite QBs in Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence (as well as Kelly Bryant in 2017). And while Dabo Swinney and Co. consistently churn out top tier recruiting classes, the objects in the ACC mirror are beginning to get closer than they appear as two other ACC teams are currently in the nation’s top ten.
Clemson seeks to be the...— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 13, 2020
- 1st back-to-back national champion since Alabama (2011-12)
- 1st FBS team to win 30 games over a 2-season span
- 1st ACC team to win 30 consecutive games
- 1st FBS team to go undefeated in back-to-back seasons since 1994-95 Nebraska pic.twitter.com/IX7COqsQ4g
As of right now, the two biggest threats in the ACC are the Miami Hurricanes, who are ranked seventh in the AP Top 25 Poll and play the Tigers tonight, and the North Carolina Tar Heels, who stand at eighth. An immediate dethroning of Clemson is highly unlikely as they have gone 72-5 since 2015, and have only lost to two ACC teams in that timeframe via major upsets by Pitt and Syracuse. Clemson has also been ranked in the AP Top 10 for the last 81 weeks, including the last 44 weeks inside the top five. However, there have been glimpses of a possible changing of the guard in what has been utter domination by the Tigers.
This potential shift in power is much needed as Clemson has not been tested since E.J. Manuel/Jameis Winston and Florida State took the ACC by storm from 2012-2014. Based on the disarray of the Seminoles, it appears evident that FSU will not be responsible for taking over the ACC anytime soon, but Miami and/or UNC could very well make their move in the near future.
The Week 5 AP Poll is here— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 4, 2020
5. Notre Dame
6. Ohio State
9. Penn State
10. Oklahoma State
UNC, led by highly coveted sophomore QB, Sam Howell, took Clemson down to the wire last year as they were only a failed two-point conversion attempt from upsetting the Tigers. UNC and Head Coach, Mack Brown, are also starting to poach recruits away from Clemson in the Carolinas as they have nabbed five-star 2021 recruits, CB, Tony Grimes (enrolled early) and DE, Keeshawn Silver, as well as four-star pro style QB, Drake Maye, who should be able to seamlessly replace Howell. As mentioned, this is a UNC team that is ranked eighth in the country and should be ready to compete, especially if they are stealing recruits directly away from Clemson.
The team that seems most prepared to upset and/or dethrone Clemson immediately is the Miami Hurricanes. The Hurricanes have a mature team that has been completely overhauled since its embarrassing bowl loss in December 2019 to Louisiana Tech. This includes the addition of dynamic transfer QB, D’Eriq King and offensive coordinator, Rhett Lashlee, who has assisted with implementing the uptempo spread formation offense. As they have steamrolled the competition to this point, many analysts have been asserting that the U is back. However, the three games have been to unranked teams - UAB, Louisville, and FSU - and the last time the U appeared to be “back” in 2017, they ended up getting destroyed by Clemson in the ACC Championship 38-3 in the midst of a three-game losing streak to end that season.
Miami will have its biggest test in the new system tonight in its first stab at the team to beat in the ACC. The U is currently a two touchdown underdog against the number one ranked team in the country so they definitely have their work cut out for them. A victory would be a dream, but not necessarily required to walk away get a moral win in Death Valley. If they can even keep the score respectable, that will be a huge step in the right direction. That is, a close game would likely give the Canes confidence, keep them in the AP Top 25 rankings, and, if they win out the remainder of their 2020 schedule (including a regular season finale against UNC), they would get a rematch against Clemson in the ACC Championship.
In the last two contests during Clemson’s ACC reign, Miami might as well have not showed up. They lost 58-0 in Miami in 2015, which resulted in Coach Al Golden’s firing, and they lost the 2017 ACC Title game 38-3 in Charlotte.
Similar to UNC, Miami has also made great strides in the recruiting trail especially in South Florida, which should continue to improve if this season continues to go well for the Canes. Even though Clemson is ranked 4th in the nation for 2021 recruiting class, both UNC and Miami are in the top ten according to 247Sports Composite Rankings (if Grimes is included for UNC’s 2021 class).
Since 2015, Clemson has been barely challenged in ACC play besides one-off games here and there. However, some parity in the ACC appears to be imminent as Miami makes their way back, UNC continues to make build its program, and Clemson slightly rebuilds next year after they likely lose the nation’s most coveted QB to the NFL draft, Lawrence, as well as RB, Travis Etienne.
With its most promising team and coaching staff since 2017, a success that ended up being shortlived, Miami will take its first stab at the Tigers tonight. This litmus test will let us know if the hype is real and if they belong in the discussion towards the upper echelon of the ACC. And, if the U is not back yet, it will show what areas Miami needs to improve upon in order to get back to competing in what has been a predictable ACC since 2015.
For all intents and purposes based on their consistent track, Clemson is likely going to remain a steady fixture atop the ACC for years to come. However, tonight is a great first opportunity to exhibit how close ACC may be to challenging Clemson’s reign, and, more specifically, how much Miami has truly improved since the two previous blowout losses to the Tigers.