CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney still can’t wrap his head around it: The Tigers routinely lose the turnover battle and yet win the game.
“It’s a concern,” Swinney said. “The good news is we’re 12-0 so we don’t have to play perfect to win.”
There been little evidence of perfect play on offense at times for No. 1 Clemson (12-0, No. 1 CFP), which faces No. 8 North Carolina (11-1, No. 10 CFP) for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship on Saturday night.
The Tigers have committed more turnovers than their opponents in six games this year, including the past three weeks.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson, tailback Wayne Gallman and receiver Artavis Scott all coughed up the ball against South Carolina to help the hapless Gamecocks score their most points this season in a 37-32 Tigers’ win.
But it could catch up with the Tigers.
Swinney knows it’s an issue, noting teams that commit two more turnovers than their opponents win just 16 percent of those games.
“It’s happened to us six times,” the coach said of his team beating the odds. “I don’t recommend that.”
Swinney worries a seventh time losing the turnover battle could be costly.
The Tar Heels are tied for 16th nationally in turnover margin coming into the title game. They went three straight games at one point this season — coinciding with wins at Pittsburgh along with home routs of Duke and Miami — without a turnover.
Not that North Carolina has been unaffected by miscues.
Its lone loss, 17-13 to South Carolina in Charlotte to start the season, came in part because of Marquise Williams’ three interceptions — two of them coming in the end zone.
The quarterback took full responsibility for the loss, and made a personal pledge.
“I told myself, I’ll be back here. It’s going to be a special one. That’s what I promised myself,” he said. “” just tell the guys, ‘I let you down that first one, but I’m going to get us back and we’re going to have some fun during the second one.’”
Only if they, like the Tigers, stop the mistakes.
The Tar Heels lost three fumbles at Virginia Tech, which nearly proved costly when they blew a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead before winning in overtime to clinch the Coastal Division crown. They followed that with three more turnovers at rival North Carolina State, which helped the Wolfpack hang around after falling behind 35-7 in the first quarter.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora has emphasized protecting the ball all season to Williams and the team, preaching the importance of “100 percent ball security” and noting that coaches in practice are often yelling at players who aren’t in their position group to protect the ball if they notice a concern.
The Tar Heels have turned the ball over 15 times this season while Clemson has had 24 turnover — 10 of those coming the last three games.
The Tigers’ problems could come from lack of focus: It’s final three opponents in Syracuse, Wake Forest and South Carolina were a combined 10-26 this season.
Clemson has certainly performed better in its biggest games. It created four turnovers while only giving away one in a 24-22 win over Notre Dame. The Tigers were turnover free and forced two against Florida State to clinch the ACC Atlantic.
Watson has made his errors, too, with 10 interceptions, five times as many he threw as a freshman.
Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett said players are drilling on ball protection this week, even doing extra laps if they drop a ball.
“It’s almost like muscle memory to try and make us not have that happen,” Leggett said.
While Swinney is working to eliminate the turnovers, he said several of them come from players seeking extra yards or making that successful play. He can live with those.
“There ain’t nothing wrong with that extra want-to or that extra fight,” he said. “That’s why we’re 12-0.”