Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers pulled off the three-peat on Saturday night.
For the third consecutive season, the orange-clad national powerhouse walked away with the ACC Championship trophy and an all-but-guaranteed spot in the College Football Playoff. Clemson — now firmly established as the league’s preeminent power following back-to-back title runs and Jimbo Fisher’s exit in Tallahassee — pummeled the seventh-ranked Miami Hurricanes for their 12th win of the 2017 season, winning 38-3. Here’s a few reasons why:
Christian Wilkins and the Tigers’ defensive line never let Miami’s offense get comfortable
Defensive coordinators Brent Venables (Clemson) and Manny Diaz (Miami) had every reason to believe in their front-sevens entering the conference title game, both ranking top-10 nationally in tackles for loss, but the Tigers were able to reaffirm their reputation on another big stage — particularly star lineman Christian Wilkins.
The Hurricanes moved backwards throughout the night. Highlighted by Wilkins' effort, Venables' group knocked down passes, pressured Miami quarterback Malik Rosier, shut down the running game and delivered big play after big play. Every negative occurence on the offense end for Mark Richt's team originated in the trenches, where Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and others took over.
"We just really had the mentality that we never were satisfied really," Wilkins said. "Just had to finish the whole time. Tried to stay locked in.
" ... We stayed locked in all the way throughout."
The Hurricanes struggled against Pitt in the disappointing season finale, but the Tigers' defense exposed the Coastal Division champs.
Kelly Bryant was ultra-efficient from start to finish
Deshaun Watson hand-delivered Dabo Swinney's previous two ACC titles.
Kelly Bryant delivered the school's third straight league crown seemingly without breaking a sweat.
The redshirt junior set an ACC Championship record by completing his first 15 passes on the night (breaking Watson's record set in 2015), finished 23 of 29 for 252 yards and a touchdown. He added another score on the ground.
"Kelly Bryant has worked his tail off for two years, without really anybody paying attention, to have the opportunity to do what he did tonight," Swinney said after the game.
The way Bryant navigated the nation's 14th-ranked scoring defense — a group that made its name for forcing turnovers — raises the ceiling for the Tigers entering the four-team playoff, perhaps answering the team's looming question throughout its title defense.
Clemson owned the turnover battle
To win the "Triple Crown" — Swinney's term for his program's third straight ACC title — Wilkins admitted the team was cognizant of the turnover margin all week during practice. The goal: No Turnover Chain appearances.
It was not a great start in that regard. After jumping out to a 7-0 lead, Ray Ray McCloud fumbled a punt return (after being undercut by a teammate) and set Miami up for its best scoring chance before a garbage-time field goal to avoid the goose egg.
From that point forward, Clemson was the night's opportunistic defense. Kendall Joseph and Ryan Carter walked away with interceptions and Dorian O'Daniel recovered a fumble to keep piling on, winning the turnover battle 3-1.
Even better, the Tigers scored 14 unanswered points off turnovers.
The Hurricanes could not sustain drives
When the Hurricanes were not turning the ball over during their comeback attempt, the offense struggled to stay on the field.
Miami finished the game converting on just three of 16 third-down attempts and finished with only 214 total yards.
"It's not like we've been playing poorly," said Miami coach Mark Richt after the game, referencing the need for his program to continue its strong recruiting efforts to match Clemson's overall talent level. "The Pitt game obviously we didn't do as good as we should. This one, we were beaten soundly."