• 45°

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.”

•••

Comments

Crime

Habitual felon sentenced to at least 8 years in prison

Kannapolis

City of Kannapolis to have bike rodeo Saturday

Crime

Two more charged for operating illegal gambling businesses

Education

A.L. Brown celebrates seniors with signing day

Business

Rebounding, but not recovered: Rowan County tourism begins challenging path toward normalcy

High School

High school baseball: Padgett leads Mustangs; 100th win for West coach Graham

Coronavirus

RSS superintendent, Board of Health discuss strategies for increasing student vaccination rates

Education

East Spencer charter school files petition to contest charter revocation

Nation/World

Gas stations report shortages as pipeline shutdown drags on

News

Lawyers: Black man didn’t drive into deputies who shot him

Nation/World

Liz Cheney says Trump and GOP backers threaten democracy

Coronavirus

Rowan Health Department clarifies county’s COVID-19 death total is 301

Landis

Landis approves new land development ordinance, zoning map

Landis

Landis approves body camera, stun gun purchase for public safety officers

Crime

One charged, another dead on sheriff’s most wanted list

Crime

No injuries after car shot eight times on Old Concord Road

Education

RSS talks first steps for new federal relief totaling $66 million

China Grove

Gary’s Barbecue staff, customers look back at 50 years

News

Salisbury Lions Club names Person of the Year, Lion of the Year at 78th annual banquet

Education

Student COVID-19 numbers show first decline since plan A

High School

High school golf: Fowler competes in state tournament

News

Amazon announces new distribution center for North Carolina

News

House passes bill to bar Cooper from mandating COVID shot

Coronavirus

Rowan County sees death 302 from COVID-19; Health Department to host final mass vaccine clinic