Roughly an hour after Clemson defeated Virginia Tech on Saturday night to run its record to 5-0, Tigers Coach Dabo Swinney was discussing how his defense had stifled another ranked opponent when the conversation turned to comparing this group with last season's national champions. BLACKSBURG, Va. —
"Oh, shoot, we've got a long way to go," he said following the 31-17 win at sold-out Lane Stadium. "Man, that defense last year played 15 games. Five games don't make a season, not unless they're going to cancel October and November and just give us a bye."
Given how No. 2 Clemson has been steamrolling through the early portion of its schedule, the rest of the season may indeed wind up becoming little more than a formality on the Tigers' path to a repeat appearance in the ACC championship game and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Clemson beat three top-15 teams in September for the first time in the history of the sport, including the last two on the road. In addition to dismantling the then-No. 12 Hokies in one of the most hostile environments in the country for visiting teams, the Tigers also blasted then-No. 14 Louisville, 47-21, in front of the second-largest crowd to witness a game at Cardinal Stadium.
The remainder of Clemson's schedule includes just one currently ranked team: No. 24 North Carolina State. There had been Nov. 11's much anticipated showdown with Florida State, which was ranked third in the preseason, but the Seminoles dropped out of the Top 25 on the heels of a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Deondre Francois contributing to an 0-2 start.
The Hokies failed to score a touchdown against Clemson until a minute into the fourth quarter, and although they finished ahead in total yards, 342 to 332, a significant chunk of that came when the outcome was well in hand.
"I don't see any weaknesses right now coming off the field from playing them," Virginia Tech Coach Justin Fuente said.
The Tigers forced three turnovers and limited Virginia Tech wide receiver Cam Phillips to seven catches for 74 yards. The senior entered as the national leader in receiving yards per game at nearly 131.
"Those guys are maybe the best team in the country," Phillips said.
The other program in that conversation is No. 1 Alabama (5-0), but its résumé doesn't include nearly the caliber of opponents as Clemson's. The Crimson Tide's only victory over a ranked team was 24-7 against Florida State in the opener for both schools. Its other wins came against Fresno State, Colorado State, Vanderbilt and Mississippi.
The rest of Alabama's schedule offers just one currently ranked opponent: No. 12 Auburn in the regular season finale at Jordan-Hare Stadium. (The Tigers are the third top-15 team that Clemson beat in September.) Two of the Crimson Tide's next four opponents are coming off embarrassing results on their home field; Tennessee lost to Georgia, 41-0, and LSU fell to Troy, 24-21.
The gap in voting points between Alabama and Clemson has been shrinking as well. Entering last week, the Crimson Tide received 1,515 to 1,458 for the Tigers. In the most recent poll released Sunday, the margin closed to 1,506 to 1,475.
Still, Alabama has won four of the past eight national championships. No other school has more than one over that time.
"Everything about them impresses you," Seminoles Coach Jimbo Fisher said of the Crimson Tide. "They're extremely well-coached. They're physical. They're big. They can cover. They're a very good team."
The relative ease of the remaining opponents for Alabama and Clemson has the programs on track to meet in the national championship game for the third consecutive year.
Clemson won the most recent matchup, 35-31, behind quarterback Deshaun Watson's four total touchdowns. Alabama triumphed the previous year, 45-40, thanks to 158 rushing yards and three touchdowns from tailback Derrick Henry. The Crimson Tide also managed to overcome Watson's 478 total yards and four passing touchdowns in that game.
What has been particularly impressive about the Tigers this season is how they've moved on seamlessly without Watson after he left for the NFL. First-year starter Kelly Bryant, Watson's understudy in the previous two seasons, continues to draw rave reviews not only from Swinney and teammates but from opposing coaches.
Bryant won the starting job in a three-way competition during training camp and surged into the national spotlight by outdueling Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
"I think [Bryant] is one heck of a football player. I'm very impressed by him," said Boston College Coach Steve Addazio, whose Eagles lost to Clemson, 34-7, on Sept. 23 in Death Valley. "They're what you would think when you're saying, 'Here's a team that just won the national championship.' Well, that's what you would think, and that's what you get."