ACC

ACC power rankings: Wait, is Clemson actually better this year?

Christian Wilkins #42 and Jalen Williams #30 of the Clemson Tigers celebrate in the fourth quarter of a game against the Louisville Cardinals at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on September 16, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. Clemson won 47-21. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Christian Wilkins #42 and Jalen Williams #30 of the Clemson Tigers celebrate in the fourth quarter of a game against the Louisville Cardinals at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on September 16, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. Clemson won 47-21. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Getty Images

Here’s a terrifying thought after Clemson’s 47-21 destruction of Louisville on Saturday: It’s possible the Tigers are actually better without the best player in school history.

That’s potential blaspheme, depending on your reverence for Deshaun Watson’s career, and quite possibly an irrational over-reaction to what just happened, but it’s also a real possibility.

Think about it.

Yes, Clemson won the national title last year, and in epic fashion behind an unbelievable performance by Watson, but that was the end result. The path to the title was far from rainbows and unicorns.

The Tigers beat Troy by six at home, they beat Louisville by six at home, they needed overtime – and a fluke missed field goal – to beat N.C. State at home and they lost to Pitt at home.

Only after the Pitt loss, on Nov. 12, did they start looking like the world-beaters they were supposed to be after reaching the 2015 national title game.

Pressure had a lot to do with Clemson’s problems last year. The Tigers were tight. They had to play against the opponent on the field and the expectation of every game being a blowout. Throw in every opponent circling the Tigers on their schedule, a weekly “Super Bowl” if you will, and you have a formula for turbulence.

This year, with Watson and five other regulars off to the NFL, where’s the pressure? Florida State was the preseason pick in the ACC, Alabama the preseason pick to win the national title.

The Tigers are carefree and playing like it. They blasted poor Kent State in the opener (56-3), no Troy redux there, and then used their relentless defense to scrape out a 14-6 home win over Auburn.

Junior quarterback Kelly Bryant, while not as prolific as Watson, has been effective in his first three starts. He has only thrown for two touchdowns but has rushed for five. Even more important, he has only thrown one interception. Against Auburn, Troy and Louisville last year, Watson threw six interceptions.

If you take care of the ball, that defense – led by athletic linemen Christian Wilkins and Wake Forest high school’s Dexter Lawrence – will win games. There are still plenty of tests left – at Virginia Tech, at N.C. State and with Florida State – but Clemson couldn’t have asked for a better start.

And if you’re looking for a sign, here’s one: In 1998, a year after losing the best player in school history (Peyton Manning), Tennessee won the national title. The Volunteers’ quarterback that season? Tee Martin. In one of the all-time coincidences, Martin’s son, Amari Rodgers, is a freshman receiver for Clemson this season.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio

Ranking the ACC

1. Clemson

Record: 3-0 (1-0 ACC)

Last game: won at Louisville, 47-21. Next game: Boston College

Things your kids will never believe: From 2005 to ’07, Clemson lost its first three ACC games with Boston College.

2. Miami

Record: 1-0 (0-0 ACC)

Last game: at FSU, ppd. Next game: Toledo

The Canes get a nice warmup for Duke with Toledo and then a crack at the Seminoles.

3. Virginia Tech

Record: 3-0 (0-0 ACC)

Last game: won at ECU, 64-17. Next game: Old Dominion

The visit from Clemson in two weeks shaping up to be a big a one for both sides.

4. Florida State

Record: 0-1 (0-0 ACC)

Last game: vs. Miami, ppd. Next game: N.C. State

From preseason favorites to mystery team, in a matter of three weeks. We’ll learn more about the Noles on Saturday.

5. Louisville

Record: 2-1 (1-1 ACC)

Last game: lost to Clemson, 47-21. Next game: Kent State

Crazy how quickly the window closes. The Cards will look back at Lamar Jackson’s tenure and wonder why they didn’t win more.

6. Duke

Record: 3-0 (0-0 ACC)

Last game: beat Baylor, 34-20. Next game: at UNC

Great start for the Blue Devils but the next four weeks are going to be a bear.

7. Wake Forest

Record: 3-0 (1-0 ACC)

Last game: beat Utah State, 46-10. Next game: at Appalachian State

Three years ago, the Deacs had minus-25 rushing yards in a 12-point loss to Utah State. On Saturday, they rolled up 291 rushing yards in a 36-point win over the Aggies.

8. Georgia Tech

Record: 1-1 (0-0 ACC)

Last game: at Central Florida, canceled. Next game: Pitt

A little extra time, courtesy of Hurricane Irma, to prepare for Pitt’s defense. Not that anyone needs extra time for that.

9. N.C. State

Record: 2-1 (0-0 ACC)

Last game: beat Furman, 49-16. Next game: at Florida State

Thirty-one years later, the losing streak to Furman is finally over.

10. UNC

Record: 1-2 (0-1 ACC)

Last game: won at Old Dominion, 53-23. Next game: Duke

Nice “get right” win in Norfolk, now the Heels have a “get back” game with Duke for the Victory Bell.

11. Virginia

Record: 2-1 (0-0 ACC)

Last game: beat UConn, 38-18. Next game: at Boise State (Friday)

Are the Wahoos showing signs of life or is UConn that bad?

12. Syracuse

Record: 2-1 (0-0 ACC)

Last game: beat Central Michigan, 41-17. Next game: at LSU

The Orange were respectable in a 34-24 home loss to LSU in 2015.

13. Boston College

Record: 1-2 (0-1 ACC)

Last game: lost to Notre Dame, 49-20. Next game: at Clemson

Things we know: Boston College has the worst offense in the ACC.

14. Pittsburgh

Record: 1-2 (0-0 ACC)

Last game: lost to Oklahoma State, 59-21. Next game: at Georgia Tech

Things we know: Pitt has the worst defense in the ACC.

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