Even without Trevor Lawrence, expect Clemson to rise to occasion


Clemson was supposed to take a step back after the first national championship run. Twice, the Tigers have been in danger of an upset defeat to an ACC also-ran without their star quarterback.

On all three occasions, they stared adversity in the face and laughed. Treated a tough situation like it was merely a roadblock held together by Scotch tape.

At this point, we shouldn’t be surprised.

Dabo Swinney was able to reach the playoff without Deshaun Watson, in the year before Trevor Lawrence arrived. He’s now 2-0 without Lawrence under center.

The Tigers are more than these two stars in this golden age of Clemson football. The latest example came on Saturday afternoon, with Lawrence out after testing positive for COVID-19.

The ACC powerhouse was behind big, down 18 points late in the first half to Boston College. The defense was a mess. True freshman D.J. Uiagalelei was struggling. Already, experts were wondering if a loss would knock the Tigers out of the playoffs.

Hours later, after Clemson rallied for a 34-28 victory, such debate felt like a waste of time.

Uiagalelei, a five-star recruit and top-five prospect, rebounded nicely, throwing for 342 yards and producing three touchdowns, two through the air and one on the ground. The defense, without injured starting linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones Jr., not only pitched a second-half shutout but produced a late safety. Running back Travis Etienne, a superstar who has taken a backseat to Lawrence, amassed 224 total yards and two touchdowns, again showing why he’s soon going to be such a big star on Sundays. The ACC winning streak was extended to a remarkable 28 games, dating back to an Oct. 13, 2017, loss to Syracuse.

In the long run, this will help Clemson. Uiagalelei will be better prepared to be the guy next season, or if he is called upon again this year. The defense will have more confidence it can step up in a big spot when needed. The Tigers learned a lot about themselves on Saturday.

Another big challenge for Clemson awaits next Saturday, against undefeated Notre Dame in South Bend. Lawrence won’t be under center, Swinney said on Saturday. The Irish are capable. We’ll learn even more about the Tigers sans Lawrence in a week.

But after what we’ve seen with this program without Watson and now Lawrence, expect it to rise to the occasion. There’s no evidence for a different result.

Jim Harbaugh’s future at Michigan is intriguing. What Michigan decides with him — do they extend his contract that is set to expire after next year or move on? — will say a lot about the school and what it wants out of its football program.

Is just good enough for the higher-ups? If that’s the case, Harbaugh stays. Michigan is in a better place now than before he arrived. It has three 10-win seasons in five years, a 33-13 Big Ten record. But if elite status is what the Wolverines really want, then moving on makes sense. Harbaugh hasn’t reached the sky-high expectations many had for him, that he could do at Michigan what he did at Stanford and with the 49ers. He has yet to beat Ohio State. He’s just 3-3 against Michigan State after Saturday’s woeful loss as a 21.5-point favorite at home. He’s 3-2 against Penn State. He has yet to win a Big Ten East crown outright or reach the playoff. He’s recruiting well but not nearly as good as the nation’s best.

This is now his sixth season. That’s more than enough time to make an honest assessment. It’s probably not going to get much better in Ann Arbor.

Ed Orgeron talked big about his defense in the preseason, claiming it was better than at any point in LSU’s run to the national championship. Those comments, seemingly a shot at former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda (now the Baylor head coach), look very foolish in retrospect. LSU has been a turnstile defensively, allowing 33.6 points per game and was ripped for 48 points and 506 yards of offense in an ugly loss to mediocre Auburn.

The Tigers are 2-3, closer to the SEC West basement than the penthouse. Former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has flopped as Aranda’s replacement, and LSU is making last year’s undefeated season seem like a fluke. The defense never looked anywhere close to this bad a year ago. Aranda might want to remind Orgeron of that.

Top 10

1. Alabama (6-0) (Last week: 1)

LSU allowed 48 points to Auburn and now Alabama comes to Baton Rouge. Revenge has arrived for Nick Saban and Co.

2. Clemson (7-0) (2)

The defense went from abysmal to dynamite, pitching a second-half shutout to key a comeback win over Boston College. Clemson will need that same effort against Notre Dame with Trevor Lawrence again expected to be out with COVID-19.

3. Ohio State (2-0) (3)

You got the feeling Ohio State could’ve put up 60 on Penn State if it wanted to. The 38-25 score really didn’t do the one-sided nature of the annual rivalry justice.

4. Georgia (4-1) (4)

Not so bold prediction: Stetson Bennett doesn’t make it all the way through the Florida game at quarterback. Georgia isn’t beating the Gators with the struggling former walk-on under center.

5. Notre Dame (6-0) (5)

The playoff is right there for the Irish, with Clemson coming to South Bend without Trevor Lawrence. Beat the Tigers on Saturday and Notre Dame can be labeled real, with an inside track to the ACC title game.

6. Florida (3-1) (6)

What a bizarre season in Gainesville. A fast start, a gut punch of a loss at Texas A&M, followed by a three-week COVID-19-forced break, then a big brawl against Missouri. Now comes the showdown with Georgia, when the top spot in the SEC East will be on the line.

7. Cincinnati (5-0) (7)

The undefeated Bearcats are now dealing with the same problem all the other non-Power Five contenders have dealt with in years past: A soft remaining schedule. They have to win and win big, while hoping others lose.

8. Texas A&M (4-1) (9)

It’s a shame the Aggies, winners of three straight after a workmanlike victory over Arkansas, won’t get another crack at Alabama. This looks like a different team than the one that wasn’t ready for the Crimson Tide on Oct. 3.

9. Oregon (0-0) (NR)

The power conference returns this weekend and they will be welcomed back. I missed Pac-12 After Dark.

10. BYU (7-0) (NR)

Zach Wilson can hurt you with his arm and his legs. He has 26 touchdowns, a 74.6 completion percentage and has BYU poised to go undefeated.

Dropped out: Michigan and Oklahoma State

Heisman Watch (in alphabetical order)

RB Travis Etienne, Clemson

Etienne has become a lethal weapon at receiver, already within 2 yards of his career-high in receiving yards (434) while averaging 15 yards per catch, a very high number for a running back.

QB Justin Fields, Ohio State

In two flawless performances, Fields has thrown for six touchdowns, zero interceptions and is completing a whopping 87.3 percent of his passes. A quarterback cannot play any better.

QB Mac Jones, Alabama

He has yet to complete less than 74.1 percent of his passes in a single game and has an 8-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Nobody could’ve foreseen this, not even the biggest Alabama homers.

QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

Missing two games after testing positive for COVID-19 obviously doesn’t help Lawrence’s chances, but as long as he comes back and performs well, they won’t alter them too much.

QB Kyle Trask, Florida

The three-week delay didn’t impact Trask. He responded by throwing for 345 yards along with four touchdown passes. Now he can really make a Heisman statement against Georgia’s 13th-ranked defense.

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