CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Each time Clemson drops in the polls (despite another unbeaten season) or quarterback Trevor Lawrence throws an interception or somebody dares to mention the schedule, it may as well be red meat dangled under Dabo Swinney’s nose.
So it did not take much to get Swinney, the Clemson coach, riled up last week when he was asked about the relevance of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
“What are you talking about?” Swinney said, incredulous to the perception that his team might have needed to stretch its winning streak to 28 games to gain entry into the College Football Playoff. “Yeah, it’s a huge game, has a lot of national relevance for us. If we lose, they want to throw us out because they don’t respect who we play, which is another joke of itself.”
The Tigers were all business on Saturday night, leaving little to chance with a 62-17 thumping of the plucky but overmatched Virginia to secure a berth in the four-team playoff. Clemson (13-0) will be joined by Louisiana State; Ohio State, which had to rally past Wisconsin; and in all likelihood, Oklahoma, which edged Baylor in overtime to win the Big 12 championship.
The playoff committee, which convened in Grapevine, Texas, to watch the conference championship games, will announce the pairings on Sunday for the two semifinals, the Fiesta Bowl and the Peach Bowl, which will be played on Dec. 28.
If Saturday’s games were a beauty pageant, it was hard not to be wowed by Clemson’s receiving tandem, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, who are dynamic enough to make Tom Brady wish he could throw to them this season.
“Certainly they’re the best receivers we’ve ever seen — that’s a fact,” Virginia cornerback Nick Grant said.
The pair has size — they are both 6-foot-4 — and a sprinter’s speed, and on Saturday night they showed flypaper hands. Ross, a sophomore who was sensational in last year’s rout of Alabama for the national championship, sprinted past two defensive backs to haul in a 59-yard scoring pass.
Higgins, though, was the star. The junior caught nine passes for 182 yards, including three for touchdowns, and was the game’s most valuable player. His best catch of the night came when he stretched out over the sideline and kept a toe in the field of play to haul in a 24-yard pass from Lawrence. That skill was complemented by brute strength when Higgins shrugged off a tackle from Heskin Smith — a cornerback who was surrendering five inches and 40 pounds — and scored on a 19-yard touchdown catch and run.
Those types of physical disparities were apparent all over the field.
While Clemson has rolled through the Atlantic Division almost by acclimation, the Coastal Division has provided new fodder for the Tigers each season. Virginia is the seventh different winner of the Coastal Division in the last seven years, but it is an increasingly familiar story.
The Cavaliers (9-4) had a terrific season and quarterback Bryce Perkins, a wily senior, poked more than a few holes in the Tigers’ defense, which allowed 387 yards, the most it had all season. But the two teams were playing with different pieces.
Whether it is Lawrence — a statuesque 6-foot-6, big-armed quarterback — the dynamic receivers or a defense dotted with five-star recruits, Clemson looks every bit the part of the college football power that is gunning for its third national championship in four seasons.
The Cavaliers have gotten by with some skillful, clever players who might suffice against the rest of the conference, but they were woefully outsized on Saturday night. Freshman kickoff returner Seneca Milledge is 5-foot-6, 160 pounds; sophomore receiver Billy Kemp IV is 5-foot-9, 175 pounds; and sophomore linebacker Noah Taylor is 6-foot-5 and a spindly 215 pounds.
Similar mismatches were present each week for Clemson.
That has been the only complaint — when the final playoff rankings are announced on Sunday, the Tigers are unlikely to have played a single ranked opponent. Thus, their lone scare — a 21-20 win at North Carolina that was secured when they thwarted a late 2-point conversion — seemed to carry great weight. This was even as they tore apart the rest of their schedule, nobody coming closer than 33 points in their final eight games.
And yet Clemson has dropped in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, from first to as low as fourth, and was ranked fifth in the first playoff ranking. If the Tigers have had to overcome skepticism from the playoff committee and voters in the polls, they seem to have the respect of L.S.U. and Ohio State, who were angling for the top spot so they could avoid playing Clemson in a semifinal.
“A lot of people say they don’t play anybody, but we don’t pay any attention to that,” said Lloyd Cushenberry III, a junior center for L.S.U. “They’re the defending national champs.”
And Clemson’s performance, with an offense that began to resemble the juggernaut that rolled through the playoffs last season, seemed to have even softened Swinney.
Asked how the committee might sort out three undefeated teams, he shrugged. He figured L.S.U. would be the top-ranked team and Ohio State next.
“We’ll be in there somewhere,” he said. “I would think we’d probably be 3 again. It doesn’t really matter. We’ll play somewhere and play somebody and be thankful for the opportunity.”
Alan Blinder contributed reporting from Atlanta.
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