Clemson provides clarity, in ACC Atlantic, and in response to setback

Deshaun Watson and Clemson will play for the ACC title against either North Carolina or Virginia Tech.
Jeremy Brevard/Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

After an eight-day stretch in which the ACC saw two top-five teams fall and four ranked schools overall, clarity, had a nice ring to it.

No. 4 Clemson provided it, and answered some of the questions as to how a group that has rarely dealt with any setbacks would react, dumping Wake Forest 35-13 to clinch the ACC Atlantic Division title and a spot in the Dec. 3 championship game in Orlando.

Deshaun Watson threw for 202 yards and a touchdown and ran for another 47 yards and two scores as the Tigers, who slipped from No. 2 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, will face South Carolina next week.

A victory there will have Clemson a win in the ACC title game from a likely return to the playoff.

We'll have to wait a week to see whom the Tigers will face, with North Carolina and Virginia Tech in rivalry games that will decide the Coastal.

The Hokies hold the tiebreaker, and a win over Virginia on Saturday will give them the division. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels face NC State and win a need and some help from the Cavaliers, who have dropped 12 straight in the battle for the Commonwealth Cup.

As for Clemson, coming off the 43-42 loss to Pitt — on the heels of a series of close calls, the comparisons to 2014 Florida State grew, and not for the right reasons.

While that Seminoles team won seven of its wins by seven points or less, — a clutch gene Clemson has shared — the lasting impression was a 39-point loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl semifinal. With these Tigers losing to the unranked Panthers, many drew parallels to that Seminoles setback on a much larger stage, but we'll never know how that Florida State team would have responded.

We know now how Dabo Swinney's handled it, jumping out to a 28-0 lead as Watson scored a pair of rushing TDs — 2 and 3 yards — and hit Mike Williams for a 15-yard score in between.

Those TDs gave him 98 responsible for in his career, moving him past former North Carolina quarterback Marquise Lee for third all-time in ACC history. Only former Tiger Tajh Boyd (133) and NC State's Philip Rivers (112) have more.

More importantly, the Tigers established the run with 245 in all, and running back Wayne Gallman, who racked up 1,527 yards last season, had 161 and two TDs on 22 carries. It was his fourth 100-yard game of the year and the first since Oct. 7 at Boston College.

Forget style points, this was just about trying to regain swagger, and Clemson did that, piling up 466 yards in all and holding Wake Forest's 123rd-ranked offense to just 204 yards, 122 below its season average.

With Louisville's rout at the hands of Houston, the ACC's only hope to reach the playoff came out and put things out of reach early. The Atlantic title was just another checkmark for a team with much bigger aspirations.

Clarity came in the division, and it came in our perception of Clemson a week after it was stunned. The Tigers handled disappointment, and did it with authority.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His book, 'Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,' is out now, and 'The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners' will be released Nov. 22, 2016.