Late push with Trevor Lawrence puts Clemson back in College Football Playoff against Ohio State

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

Clemson was on the bubble for the College Football Playoff a month ago.

A 47-40 loss in double overtime at Notre Dame in early November left a blemish on its résumé and put it in a precarious position for returning to the postseason.

The Tigers couldn’t afford another loss. In the seven-year history of the playoff, no team with two losses had ever secured one of the four spots.

But they ultimately made it in with ease, earning the No. 2 seed and setting up a rematch with Ohio State in a semifinal matchup at the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence looks for running room against Notre Dame on Saturday.

Saturday’s 34-10 rout of Notre Dame in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in the teams’ second meeting effectively clinched a spot.

It was the third consecutive victory for Clemson, a streak that has come with star quarterback Trevor Lawrence back in the fold.

After testing positive for the coronavirus in late October, Lawrence missed two games, including the loss to the Fighting Irish.

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His return made a big difference. On Saturday he passed for 322 yards and two touchdowns, along with running for 90 yards, which included a 34-yard touchdown.

Brent Venables’ defense also held Notre Dame to 263 total yards, only six weeks removed from allowing nearly twice as many yards to the same offense.

With a roster closer to full strength Tigers coach Dabo Swinney considered it their most well-rounded performance this fall. 

"It was definitely our best game, our most complete game," Swinney said. "All three phases really complemented each other."

The conference title game was likely a must-win situation for Clemson. With a second loss, the Tigers would have been subject to a fall in the rankings. The selection committee could have looked at either Texas A&M or Oklahoma as a possible replacement.

The Aggies suffered only one loss, to Alabama, while the Sooners won the Big 12 after starting 1-2.  

Swinney further praised his team's resiliency for its strong finish.

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"I'm just really proud of this team and how they've just worked and found a way each and every week to get better and to stay the course," he said. "It's good to see them now after 11 games be battle-tested."

Clemson has a track record of playoff success. It has secured one of the four spots in six consecutive seasons and twice won the national championship.  

The playoff’s first season was the only time that the Tigers weren’t in the field. They have previously twice beaten the Buckeyes in the playoff, both times in the semifinals during Ohio State’s two most recent trips.

The recent matchups have made for a bit of a rivalry between the programs

During a radio interview this month, Swinney needled Ohio State for playing fewer games than some of the other top playoff contenders and suggested that the reduced slate should cost it a berth.

“There has to be some type of standard,” Swinney said. “If I was on a committee, it would be hard for me to leave out a 10-1 Texas A&M or an 11-game Florida team over a team that's played six games.”

But after the announcement of the seeding on Sunday, Swinney was more diplomatic when he was interviewed on ESPN.

Last season’s tight finish in the Fiesta Bowl was on his mind.

“Ohio State is an incredibly talented team, and we look forward to a great matchup,” Swinney said. “We had a heck of a game last year, and I doubt it will be anything different this year. It's going to be a great competitive game. Both teams fighting, probably comes down to a few plays.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman