No. 3 Clemson 62, No. 23 Virginia 17
The Cavaliers marched right down the field on the opening drive Saturday night in the ACC championship game against the Tigers, but on third-and-9 at the 12, Bryce Perkins threw an interception in the back of the end zone.
On the last play of the first quarter, Clemson was up 14-7 and facing a second-and-18 after De'Vante Cross sacked Trevor Lawrence. Nick Grant, blanketing wideout Tee Higgins, tipped Lawrence's pass in the air. For a moment, it looked like the Tigers were going to be in third-and-long. No, wait. Higgins, who looked every bit like the next Clemson NFL star, somehow came down with the ball and finished a 38-yard play.
Down 17-7, Virginia punted in the second quarter. Derion Kendrick muffed the return at the Tigers' own 30, but Clemson recovered the ball.
It was that kind of night for UVa. The Cavaliers were overmatched and outclassed, but they had their chances early to at least make the game interesting. A series of mistakes and unfortunate bounces went against them, and it was 31-7 at halftime. Game over.
Virginia forced Clemson to punt on the first drive of the second half, then went down and scored to make it 31-14, which made fans wonder: What if? It probably would not have mattered, but fans are allowed to wonder what the result of the game would have been had things gone just a little differently, especially in the early going. What if Perkins threw a TD instead of a pick? On the Wahoos' second drive, they scored, so at that point, had they gotten a TD on that first drive, they would've been up 14-7.
But oddly enough, Virginia fans can take solace in the fact that Clemson was probably going to win anyway. The Cavaliers' defense, a strength at the beginning of the season, was just not what it once was, and the team that has won two of the past three national championships ran roughshod over it. Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne, and Higgins were all amazing. Even if UVa's offense had been nearly flawless, they probably still would have lost in the neighborhood of a 52-38-type game, because the defense got crushed that badly. UVa's offense was the first to rack up more than 300 yards on Clemson this season (387), but the Tigers scored their most points in a game and piled up 619 yards.
Hasise Dubois showed out for the Wahoos, making some nice catches -- including a jump ball in which he got to showcase his strong hands, grabbing the ball away from two Clemson defenders -- and really looking like he belonged on the big stage. He was not the only one, and the team did not look like it wasn't ready for the spotlight -- as evidenced by driving right down the field on the opening drive -- but Dubois stood out the most. The senior from New Jersey finished with 10 catches for 130 yards and a touchdown, Virginia's first.
It would have been awesome had Virginia been able to make it a competitive game in the second half, but it was not to be. UVa was going to need to be almost perfect to have a chance at the upset, then have some lucky bounces to actually do it. But Clemson is on a mission because it feels disrespected by the playoff committee for being tabbed the third-best team in the country, despite its recent pair of national titles.
Virginia has come a long way in four years under Bronco Mendenhall. Now it sees how much further it must go if it wants to even attempt to reach the level of a team like Clemson. But losing 62-17 to the possible national champion in the ACC championship is still way more fun than losing to Richmond 37-20 at Scott Stadium to begin the season, which the Cavaliers did in 2016, Mendenhall's inaugural campaign.
Despite the blowout loss, the Wahoos have one more chance this season to show how much better they've gotten under Bronco's guidance. Virginia, which is 9-4 and No. 24 in the playoff rankings, has been matched up with No. 8 Florida, which is 10-2, in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30. The Gators' only losses are to LSU, 42-28, which has risen to No. 1 in the new rankings, and Georgia, 24-17, which is No. 5 after losing to LSU in the SEC championship. The Bulldogs are 11-2.
Florida is not on the same level as Clemson, but it is just one rung below. Virginia is going to have to come up with a very good effort to even try to knock off the Gators. This will be tougher than beating South Carolina, another SEC East team, in the Belk Bowl last season. The Gamecocks were about five-point favorites over the 'Hoos. The Gators are 13.5-point favorites. A victory is not as unlikely for UVa as it was against Clemson, but the team will have to play its best game of the season to have a shot.
But Virginia has already beaten its rival for the first time since 2003, won the Coastal Division for the first time because of said rivalry win, and tallied nine victories for just the seventh time since 1982, George Welsh's first season in Charlottesville. And "Orange Bowl" and "Virginia" are in the same sentence. Obviously, I hope the boys are able to put forth a good effort against Florida, but this season feels like a win already.