The reality is, Clemson has filled in nearly every box on its regular-season to-do list. Win the ACC Atlantic? Check. Beat division powers Florida State and Louisville? Check. Take down in-state rival South Carolina, yet again? Check on that one, too.
The No. 3 Tigers are in position to defending their conference title Saturday against Virginia Tech, and a win will all but guarantee a return to the College Football Playoff.
Dabo Swinney and Co. have met nearly every expectations — save an unbeaten season, which was derailed by Pitt on Nov. 12 — yet, at times have felt almost underwhelming.
That expectation, that's on us.
“I've met my expectations,” quarterback Deshaun Watson said Monday. “Of course I wish I would have had less turnovers. That's the only part of the expectations that I didn't meet.”
The flaws are in the details with these Tigers, who returned nine starters from a star-studded attack, with Watson — third in the 2015 Heisman Trophy voting after the first 4,000-yard passing and 1,000-yard rushing season in FBS history — as its center piece.
Factor in Wayne Gallman and wide receiver Aratavis Scott, and the Tigers led the nation with 6,523 yards from its top trio. Then, factor in the return of WR Mike Williams (1,030 yards in '14) from injury, and things truly got scary.
But after a 24-17 overtime escape from NC State on Oct. 15, that star-laden offense was just 30th in the nation in total offense at 474.3 yards per game, and 31st in scoring (36.6). During last season's run to the national championship game, the Tigers were pouring in 38.5 points (16th) and 514.5 yards (11th).
“Everyone wants to beat us, and everyone is going to play different and make sure they bring their 'A' game whenever they step on the field with Clemson,” Watson said. “We still have the same mentality, same focus, same preparation.”
Those aspects may have been the same, but Watson's play simply hadn't been. He tossed his eighth interception vs. the Wolfpack and he had three in the Oct. 1 win over Louisville, and while those miscues haven't disappeared — as he tossed his 14th pick against the Gamecocks, one more than he QB threw a year ago — that NC State game saw him break out with a season-high 378 yards passing.
A week later, he threw for the same figure at Florida State, and in the past six games has averaged 342.2 yards, including an ACC record 580 in the loss to the Panthers, and tossed six TD passes against the Gamecocks.
He's helped propel an attack that, over the past five games, has been that expected juggernaut, averaging 44.8 points and scoring no fewer than 35 in that span.
“This is the perfect time for us to start peaking at our best and being our best,” Watson said.
The Tigers are exactly where they wanted to be, and another shot at a national title within their grasp. They may have gotten there by winning five games by six points or less, and without the all-time numbers that were projected for Watson, their offensive center piece.
But they got there, warts and all.
Said Watson, “I accomplished everything that I really wanted to accomplish, and winning games that I want to win and having the opportunity to win another ACC Championship and get to the playoffs again.”
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, 'Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,' and 'The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.' are now available.