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Clemson keeps control of playoff destiny with hard-fought win over FSU

Despite Dalvin Cook’s big night, Clemson managed to win at Florida State for the first time in 10 years as Deshaun Watson led a late TD drive that FSU couldn’t match.

TALLAHASSEE — Clemson’s first win at Florida State in 10 years didn’t come easy, but the Tigers avoided the upset bug that felled other undefeated teams on Saturday.

Here are three thoughts from Clemson’s 37–34 win:

1. It hasn’t always been pretty, but Deshaun Watson has Clemson in position for big things

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson may be the second ACC quarterback in the Heisman Trophy race—and maybe only the second-worthiest Heisman contender at Doak Campbell Stadium Saturday—but he’s the only one who still has his team in position to win the ACC, make the College Football Playoff and compete for the national title after leading the Tigers on a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. Florida State refused to cover Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett, and Watson made the Seminoles pay.

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The Tigers trailed by five when they got the ball back with 3:23 remaining. Watson then led them on a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that included three passes to Leggett for 70 yards. Leggett capped the drive with a 34-yard touchdown catch that ended with him planting his free hand on the ground to catapult himself over the goal line.

Watson and Clemson’s offense weren’t perfect Saturday by any stretch. Watson threw two interceptions and his blockers allowed him to get sacked four times. The Tigers opened the game with touchdown drives of 68 and 80 yards, and it appeared this would be the game they put everything together offensively and crush a quality opponent, but Florida State’s defense stiffened and kept Clemson out of the end zone again until the third quarter.

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“I’m glad to finally walk into this room and be happy,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said as he entered the tiny visitor’s interview room beneath Doak Campbell Stadium. The Tigers hadn’t won here since 2006, and Swinney had been part of Clemson’s staff for every loss since.

2. Cook’s greatness, Fisher’s anger, Francois’s toughness on display in defeat

Florida State tailback Dalvin Cook remains amazing, but his likely final season in Tallahassee will end with no championships of any kind. The Seminoles are 2–3 in ACC play and virtually eliminated from competing for the Atlantic Division title. Cook nearly led the Seminoles to a win Saturday, rushing for 169 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries. For the first time in his career, Cook scored on two runs of more than 40 yards (43, 70) and his eight-yard touchdown run with 3:23 remaining gave the Seminoles a 34–29 lead. “Dadgum No. 4. I hope he’s leaving,” Swinney joked. “He is great.”

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher was irate afterward because of a blocking below the waist call against Seminoles fullback Eddie Stevenson that erased a long Cook run in the fourth quarter with the Seminoles leading 28–26. Fisher called the penalty “garbage,” and he called a subsequent unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Seminoles’ bench “cowardly.” The two calls left Florida State facing first-and-25 from its own 10-yard line. Without the penalties, the Seminoles would have had a first-and-10 in Clemson territory. “It’s ridiculous that they did that,” Fisher said. “That was a huge call in the game.”

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Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois, meanwhile, probably deserves some kind of award for being the nation’s toughest player. Francois was sacked six times and hit many more by Clemson’s front seven and still nearly led the Seminoles back for a win or overtime. It appeared Florida State had a chance after Francois hit Travis Rudolph for a 25-yard gain on third-and-23 on the final drive. But consecutive false starts left the Seminoles with a first-and-20. On third and fourth downs, Francois got buried by Clemson defenders.

“We knew we’d get the best version of Florida State that there could possibly be,” Swinney said.

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3. Clemson is still in control of its playoff path

On a day when four undefeated teams (Nebraska, Boise State, Baylor, West Virginia) lost on the road, the Tigers remained in control of their playoff future. A loss wouldn’t have knocked Clemson out of contention; the Tigers still would have held the head-to-head tiebreaker against one-loss Louisville for the ACC Atlantic Division title. Still, a loss might have dented Clemson’s reputation with the College Football Playoff selection committee, which will release its first ranking on Tuesday. Swinney, for the record, claimed he never had a doubt.

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“I never thought we’d lose,” Swinney said. “But boy we make it hard sometimes.”

Clemson likely will be second (behind Alabama) or third (behind Alabama and Michigan) in the first CFP committee ranking. It doesn’t much matter where the Tigers are ranked Tuesday, though. If they keep piling up the wins—even the imperfect ones—they’ll be headed to the playoff for a second consecutive season.