CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney put on a slideshow for his team this week with pictures of the College Football Playoff title site in Arizona and the White House, a privilege reserved for national champions.
“The best is yet to come,” he said.
The third-ranked Tigers, who landed atop the first CFP rankings this week, took a huge step toward the playoffs with their 23-13 victory over the Seminoles.
“We won the Kentucky Derby tonight,” Swinney said. “But we want to win the Triple Crown.”
There was no dampening the party, though, for the thousands of orange-clad supporters who rushed the field to celebrate as the final seconds ticked off of Clemson’s 12th consecutive win. The scoreboard flashed “ACC Atlantic Division Champions” and the speakers blared the song, “I’m on top of the world.”
“I’ve been voting us No. 1 for three weeks,” Swinney said. “Y’all are just catching up.”
Swinney promised bigger parties ahead, but only if his players keep the same approach they have all year of focusing on the next opponent.
No one’s sleeping on the Tigers (9-0, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) now. They appear to have a glide path into the playoffs with games against Syracuse, Wake Forest and rival South Carolina — a combined record of 9-18.
Clemson will be heavy favorites to defeat whoever comes from the ACC Coastal in their first league title game since 2011. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Clemson isn’t among the four playoff teams.
“We’re not worried about that now,” said Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who rallied the Tigers from a 10-6 halftime deficit with three long second-half scoring drives. “We’ve taken it game-by-game, prepared the same way and gotten these results.”
It helps to have Watson in control. He threw a go-ahead touchdown pass to Deon Cain, Greg Huegel kicked three field goals and Wayne Gallman came through with a game-sealing score.
“It’s good to control our destiny. It’s good to be in the driver’s seat,” Swinney said. “We just have to keep our hands on the wheel and not get distracted.
Clemson’s defense shined, too. After giving up a 75-yard TD to Cook on the game’s second snap, it allowed just two field goals the rest of the way. The Tigers stopped Cook on third and fourth down runs in the fourth quarter with the Seminoles (7-2, 5-2) a yard from a first down.
The loss all but eliminates Florida State from the college football playoffs. It also ends the Seminoles run as three-time ACC champions, a stretch that included the 2013 national title.
“It’s been a heck of a run,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Time to start another one.”
Cook ran for 194 yards, but only 37 came in the second half.
Sean Maguire started for a second straight game and it looked like he and Cook might lead the Seminoles to the upset.
Cook broke off a 75-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage and Maguire drove Florida State to the Clemson 17 on the next drive.
But Adrian Baker’s interception ended the threat and Florida State didn’t get into the end zone again. Roberto Aguayo had two field goals, the last from 41 yards out that tied the game at 13-all in the third quarter.
Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson missed a second straight contest after suffering a concussion, although Fisher said Golson could’ve played if needed.
Watson finished 28 of 42 for 297 yards. He also rushed for 107 yards. Gallman ended with 103 yards rushing.
The last time the Tigers were 9-0 was 1981 when they won their lone national championship.
Florida State had Clemson as on its heels early.
Cook sprang through the line on the game’s second play and was untouched until he hit the end zone 75 yards later. He added a 36-yard the next time he touched the ball. His 111 yards on those two plays was more than Clemson had averaged giving up in games (109) this season.
The Tigers were rattled. A fake punt that had picked up a first down was called back for an illegal formation. They failed a fourth-and-2 pitch that Jalen Ramsey snuffed out, then Watson inexplicably spiked a third-down snap right before halftime with Clemson in the Florida State red zone.
Swinney had his arms out asking, “Why?” to Watson after the rare mental miscue.
Watson chalked it up to miscommunication, then made the error irrelevant with his play in the second half.