• 63°

Clemson, underdogs again, on way to another CFP title game

They're back again ...

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney celebrates after Clemson defeated Ohio State 29-23 in the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football playoff semifinal Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

By Pete Iacobelli

AP Sports Writer

No. 3 Clemson is an underdog — again.

Once more, the defending national champions have to deal with being labeled second best when they face No. 1 LSU for the College Football Playoff title in New Orleans on Jan. 13.

“I mean, you can say we’re pretty comfortable with it,” said linebacker Chad Smith, the defensive MVP of Clemson’s 29-23 Fiesta Bowl victory over Ohio State last Saturday night.

It’s a role Clemson (14-0; No. 3 CFP) and coach Dabo Swinney — 4 1-2 point underdogs by oddsmakers — have embraced much of the season.

The Tigers started as the preseason No. 1. Yet, early on, looked ragged on offense and in particular, at quarterback. Last year’s freshman star Trevor Lawrence had thrown five interceptions his first three games — more than the four he’d thrown in all his national championship winning debut.

“Trevor threw a couple of interceptions and that sort of became the narrative,” Swinney said Monday.

The tipping point came in a 21-20 late escape at North Carolina on Sept. 28. Despite the win, the Tigers fell from the top spot and kept sliding — they were No. 5 in the first CFP rankings.

“The story was more about who we played,” Swinney said. “Trying to create how bad (the Atlantic Coast Conference is) rather than who we are.”

Clemson, however, kept rolling and defeated each of their last eight opponents heading into the Fiesta Bowl by 29 points or more. Lawrence found his game again, too, with 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions in that stretch.

The quarterback laughs off the early criticism, remembering how last January after his bravura championship game many commentators said he should withdraw from school and spend the next two years prepping for the NFL.

“Those same ones were telling me all the mistakes I was making” this season, Lawrence said.

Clemson may have silenced a few doubters with its Fiesta Bowl victory. After falling behind 16-0 in the opening half, the Tigers rallied for a dramatic, fourth-quarter victory.

Lawrence led a 94-yard, four-play drive that ended with Travis Etienne’s 35-yard touchdown catch with 1:49 left to put Clemson ahead for good.

The Tigers ended Ohio State’s comeback on safety Nolan Turner’s interception in the end zone in the final seconds.

Swinney said his players shook off adversity to reach their fourth national title game in five seasons.

The way it ended “was the best part of it,” Swinney said. “To have to go 94 yards against the best defense in the country to get the lead and then you got to stop the No. 1 scoring offense in the country to win.”

Smith and Lawrence believe Clemson’s experience in the title game is an edge LSU can’t match.

The fifth-year senior has been part of all four even if was a never-used redshirt freshman in Clemson’s 45-40 loss to Alabama following the 2015 season.

“We have guys who have been in that moment and can draw back on that,” Smith said.

Lawrence is comfortable with his team’s experience, although he does not see it as a factor when it comes to slowing down top-ranked LSU.

Swinney is giving his team a couple of days off — the Tigers got back from Phoenix late Sunday — to recuperate and recover from a physical matchup with the Buckeyes.

Any lapses against Ohio State will have to be cleaned up in Clemson’s final set of practices before taking on LSU, which had a dominant showing from quarterback Joe Burrow in the 63-28 dismantling of Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl.

And while Clemson won’t be the favorite, Swinney is certain his team won’t be downgraded, either.

“We’ve played somebody now,” Swinney said. “I think Ohio State is a pretty good team. And our guys still found a way to win.”




Rowan Helping Ministries preparing to reopen clothing assistance as temperatures drop


Local retailers looking to holiday shopping for boost in business


Virus numbers could be erratic after Thanksgiving


Appeals court rejects Trump challenge of Pennsylvania race


52 COVID-19 cases added Friday after week with highest, fourth-highest increases


Blotter: Man charged with stealing boat, $10,000 in auto parts


RSS superintendent hiring process continues


We want to hear from readers: How are you planning to do your holiday shopping?


‘Whoever we feed is a blessing:’ Providence Baptist Church distributes free meals on Thanksgiving


Spencer to receive $750,000 CDBG grant for home repair


For Rowan, 2020 general election turnout statistics mostly mirror 2016


Blotter: Nov. 26


County sets record for most COVID-19 positives reported in one day


From poult to Thanksgiving centerpiece, Evans Family Farm knows how to raise turkeys


Catawba, Livingstone not bringing students back until after the holidays


‘Just because’: Partners in Learning surprises staff with $15,000 in bonuses, turkeys


Few applications received for state’s child care, remote learning assistance grant


Girls Scouts pack meals for Meals on Wheels Rowan


RCCC offering solutions for students wanting to jumpstart their college education


PetSmart donation to Essie Mae Kiser Foxx


Salisbury Police ready to roll out regional crime center before end of the year


Shoutouts: North Hills Christian School announces homecoming king and queen


‘An icon of China Grove:’ Former China Grove Elementary students remember custodian Carl Wilkerson


Catawba basketball: The struggle to play the games