No. 1 Clemson’s 42-17 win against No. 7 Miami is reaffirmation of what we knew heading into kickoff:
Clemson is the best team in the ACC.
Clemson is deserving of being No. 1 in the Amway Coaches Poll. (More on that in a moment.)
Clemson is on its way to another trip to the College Football Playoff, the program’s sixth straight.
And Clemson is not quite in midseason form.
In bullying the unbeaten Hurricanes, Clemson defined the gap between itself and the rest of the conference while showing the need for improvement on special teams and in developing the young skill players littering the depth chart on offense.
It’s possible that Miami ends up being the best team the Tigers face all season, though it’s more likely that No. 5 Notre Dame provides a tougher test when the two teams meet in South Bend on Nov. 7.
Either way, the Tigers’ play against the Hurricanes bodes well for the team’s chances of making another unspoiled run through conference play and a case for being the top-ranked team in the final playoff rankings.
Clemson closes out October against Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Boston College.
Trevor Lawrence, who finished with 292 passing yards and three touchdowns, outplayed Miami’s D’Eriq King in the battle of Heisman Trophy contenders. King has breathed life into the Hurricanes’ offense but was unable to find a rhythm against Clemson, ending with 205 yards of total offense and completing 12 of his 28 attempts.
But Lawrence wasn’t helped by an in-progress receiver corps, which in place of Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross needs more from underclassmen such as Frank Ladson, who has been inconsistent. Ladson’s drop of a clear touchdown on a long Lawrence pass in the first half temporarily deflated the Clemson offense.
The biggest issue for Clemson was the kicking game, which had been a pleasant surprise through three games but saw three kicks blocked. One, a 61-yard attempt as time expired in the first half, was returned for a Miami touchdown. (While the execution was poor, Dabo Swinney’s decision to kick in the first place was worse.)
Atop the Coaches Poll since the preseason, beating Miami by 25 points cements Clemson’s place at No. 1. While Alabama has been predictably impressive, the Tigers currently own the best win of the pair — topping Miami is a little better than Alabama’s win against Texas A&M — and have done nothing to warrant being replaced by the Crimson Tide.
For now, at least. Barring chaos, unbeaten Clemson would enter the postseason with three or four wins against ranked teams: Miami, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and its opponent in the ACC championship. In the same scenario, undefeated Alabama would have six: A&M, Georgia, Tennessee, LSU, Auburn and in the SEC championship.
If not debated with nearly the same fervor as the chase for No. 4, the competition between the Tigers and Tide is deeply important in one key respect: The No. 2 seed in the national semifinals might face Ohio State, for example, while No. 1 would undoubtedly face an easier matchup.
The debate might not come into play. While Alabama’s offense is rolling behind quarterback Mac Jones, the Tide struggled defensively in beating Ole Miss 63-48. If not perfect, Clemson is a far more complete team in comparison.
To hash out Clemson’s semifinal scenarios in October is a statement in itself. Four games in and with as many as seven to come until the postseason, already good enough for No. 1 but with time to improve, the Tigers are rolling toward the playoff.
Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg