Barry Svrluga

On the morning of Oct. 8, a Sunday, Dino Babers awoke in Syracuse, N.Y., where he coaches the football team. He had two tasks: cleanse his players' minds of what, for them, was an important victory over Pittsburgh the night before, and then somehow get them to believe they could vault over the ridiculously high bar that sat just five days in the future.

"It's almost like you're standing in there against Nolan Ryan, and you know he's going to throw it up and in there, and you've got to stand in there and take it," Babers said. "And then you have to believe that you'll hit a home run once every blue moon."

In this case, Nolan Ryan was Clemson, then the second-ranked team in the country, the reigning national champion, winner of 37 of its previous 39 games dating from the end of the 2014 season. Included in those results was, perhaps, one glimmer of hope: Pittsburgh's 43-42 victory in Death Valley the previous year. Also included in those results was a demoralizing data point: Clemson's 54-0 demolition of Babers's helpless Orange in 2016.

Babers knew he would address his players that day. But this was not a speech. It was a conversation among people with a common goal.

"They're going to look at you, and it's going to be one of two things," Babers said. "It's either, 'He's just saying that to make us practice harder,' or they really believe."

As Clemson prepares to face Alabama for the third straight year in the College Football Playoff — this time in a semifinal rather than for the championship — there will be examinations of the previous two matchups, of what worked and what didn't for each team and how that might impact Tigers-Tide 3.0. That each is here could have been predicted because Alabama entered the year as the top-ranked team and Clemson stood fifth, and each produces NFL talent like Kellogg's makes Corn Flakes.

But perhaps the season's most significant outlier is this: Syracuse 27, Clemson 24.

And for that, there is just one explanation: college football. College freaking football.

"To beat a team like that," Babers said, "you have to play almost a perfect game."

But the team Babers needed to play a perfect game had lost to Middle Tennessee State. At home. It had allowed Clemson 565 yards of offense the previous year. It was a 24-point underdog in its own stadium.

Plus, Babers's program is in transition. The 56-year-old coach, who was an assistant at Baylor during the Robert Griffin III salad days and later turned in two-year stints as the head man at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green, is trying to turn the Orange into a frenetic, no-huddle offensive machine. But he just got the job before the 2016 season, so he is doing it with lots of players more suited to the option attack run by the previous regime.

Stranger still: Syracuse played five games after its win over Clemson. It didn't win any of them, finishing 4-8. Its final three losses — against Wake Forest, at Louisville and home to Boston College — came by a combined 95 points.

So, then, how did this anomaly happen?

"You get in a game like that and you have to decide how far you want to go," Babers said. "What I mean is: How much are you willing to give up for that victory?"

There was, in fact, a toll, and we'll get to that. But first, this perfect game had to open in perfect fashion: Syracuse took the opening kickoff and, with 42,475 filling what can be a cavernous Carrier Dome, needed 10 methodical plays to reach the end zone. When quarterback Eric Dungey found wide receiver Dontae Strickland on a 23-yard scoring pass, the believers were not just on the sideline. They were in the stands.

"That engaged the crowd," Babers said. "That allowed them to think, 'This may be something special.' And we could kind of say, 'Come join us in this.' "

So for 3 hours 27 minutes, they joined in. With the score tied at 17 in the third quarter, Clemson came at the Orange with a corner blitz. But Dungey, with the pressure about to be in his grill, took the time to sell a play-fake. "It was an unbelievable job," Babers said. The defensive back hesitated. Wide receiver Steve Ishmael came open. And Dungey hit him with a 30-yard touchdown pass.

There's that perfect game thing again. By the end of the night, a Clemson offense that would average 449 yards per game gained just 317; only Auburn held the Tigers to fewer. By the end of the night, a Clemson defense that ranked sixth nationally by allowing just 278 yards per game had given up 440 to Syracuse; only N.C. State gained more all season on the Tigers, who clamped down on their final four opponents with the following yards allowed: 229, 216, 207 and 214.

Now, Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant was hobbled entering the Syracuse game and had to go to the bench in the second half. Still, backup Zerrick Cooper completed 10 of 14 throws, and the Orange moved the ball against what is likely the most fearsome defensive front in the college game.

The winning points came on Cole Murphy's 30-yard field goal with just under 10 minutes remaining. But the winning moment came later, when Dungey converted a third and eight with his own rush, and all the Orange had to do was take a knee three times.

"It's an unbelievable moment," Babers said. "I just think about the kids, knowing that this moment will be with them the rest of their lives, that they'll tell their grandkids about it until they're saying, 'Grandpa, not again. Not the story about how you beat Clemson at the Loud House.'"

Now, back to what the Orange was willing to do for that moment. After Syracuse scored its second touchdown to take a first-quarter lead, the Orange kicked off to dangerous Clemson back Travis Etienne. Etienne looked like he might have a seam, like he might have a path to the end zone. On the ground, having been blocked, was Syracuse defensive back Scoop Bradshaw.

"You have to decide: Are you going to throw your body into this guy and maybe get him?" Babers said. "If you do, you could get hurt. If you don't, he's going to run for a touchdown."

Bradshaw decided to throw his shoulder and arm in front of Etienne, who stumbled enough that his path to scoring closed. But Bradshaw's shoulder suffered.

"The rest of the season," Babers said, "he played with basically one arm."

Over the next month, the defensive casualties mounted. In the last three weeks, Syracuse — the only team to beat Clemson in a year — allowed 2,042 yards. Dungey was hurt against Florida State. "The house of cards," Babers said, "began to fall."

But for one Friday night in central New York, the house of cards stood. Maybe it's a blueprint for how to beat Clemson. Maybe not. But for one coach and his staff and his group of kids, it's a moment that can't be duplicated.

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