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Sapakoff: Unlike 2015, Clemson is peaking at the right time

November 27, 2016

CLEMSON - Dignitaries and armchair quarterbacks from around the college football world lauded the Clemson performance in its 45-40 loss to Alabama in the College Football Championship Game last season.

The Tigers remain disgusted.

They blew a 24-21 lead in the fourth quarter.

To everyone else, Glendale was about Deshaun Watson’s dazzling 405 yards passing and four touchdown throws against a Nick Saban defense.

To Clemson players and coaches, it was part of a frustrating pattern. Starting with the rivalry game at South Carolina, the Tigers either started slow or finished poorly – even while getting to 14-0 and advancing to within one quarter of a national championship.

“We remember a year ago and how we limped to the finish not the way we wanted to,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Saturday night after a 56-7 victory over South Carolina. “Not as much the Alabama game, but just the last part of the year where we didn’t play as clean or maybe didn’t prepare the same way.”

Clemson looked a little tired last season.

But not Saturday night against South Carolina.

If this kind of thorough emphasis on closing strong continues through an ACC Championship Game date with Virginia Tech on Saturday night in Orlando, Clemson is the team best fit to give No. 1 Alabama a College Football Playoff tussle. At least.

Not since 1900

The Tigers, 11-1 and sure to rise from No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, were favored by a series-record 24 points against South Carolina (6-6). They more than doubled that bullyish prediction.

Watson threw six touchdown passes and didn’t play a full three quarters.

It was the second-most lopsided rout in series history, topped by only a 51-0 Clemson victory in 1900. That is, the largest margin of victory since the forward pass was ruled legal in college football.

Who knew Ulric Jones’ block of Greg Huegel’s 39-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter would keep Clemson from setting a rivalry record?

The Gamecocks finished with a season-low 218 yards of total offense (previous low was 243 in a loss at Mississippi State). They allowed a season-high 622 yards (previous high was 519 in East Carolina win).

“Great teams and great players are very, very hard to satisfy,” Venables said.

Clemson seniors talked about that in the days leading up to the South Carolina game.

Fourth-quarter emphasis

They also talked about the last four games of last season:

- A 37-32 win over the Gamecocks in Columbia was closer than expected for an undefeated team playing a three-win team with an interim head coach.

- A 45-37 ACC Championship Game nail-biter over North Carolina came down to a controversial onside kick recovery.

- Clemson pummeled Oklahoma, 37-17, in the Orange Bowl, a College Football Playoff semifinal. Not much wrong with that, except a sluggish start (Sooners led 17-16 at halftime).

- And Alabama’s 24-point fourth quarter. Eight of Clemson’s 2015 opponents failed to score that many points in an entire game.

South Carolina and North Carolina also outscored Clemson in the fourth quarter last season.

Along with everything else, the Tigers were happy about blanking South Carolina over the last 18 minutes Saturday night.

“We understand that you have to be at your best in the fourth quarter,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “Also we’re working all year to get to championship time; that’s when you have to be at your best. Our guys understand that as far as awards and rankings, none of that stuff matters in September and October.”

The fourth quarter of games, and the fourth quarter of the season, that’s what matters.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff