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Clemson's shocking loss came at just right time

| Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, 7:39 p.m.

NEW ORLEANS — It seems so long ago but no less surreal.

Turns out, a shocking loss was just what Clemson needed to make a run at its second straight national championship.

The top-ranked Tigers (12-1) undoubtedly have the worst defeat among the four teams in the College Football Playoff, really one of the worst for any team in the Top 25.

When Syracuse stunned Clemson, 27-24, on a Friday night in mid-October, it was the last win of the season for the Orange. They finished with a five-game skid and a 4-8 record.

Clemson, of course, didn't lose again. The Tigers had only one close call the rest of the way, romping to the ACC title and setting up a New Year's night rematch against No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl semifinal game.

“That told us if we don't bring it for one game, it doesn't matter who we're playing,” Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said Thursday. “We can definitely get beat. That was really a time for us to grow up.”

Spurred on by a raucous home crowd, Syracuse shook off a fumble that was returned for a 63-yard touchdown to play an almost perfect game in every other aspect. Eric Dungey threw three touchdown passes as the Orange piled up 28 first downs, a 440-317 advantage in total yards and a nearly 10-minute edge in time of possession. The Tigers were largely doomed when quarterback Kelly Bryant, already slowed by an injured ankle, was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the final minute of the first half, forcing redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper to go the rest of the way.

“We had a lot of young guys in terms of experience,” Wilkins said. “Not a lot of guys who had played, who had that specific situation happen to them, having to come from behind on the road in a pretty hostile environment.”

In the playoff era, it's certainly not unusual for the eventual national champion to overcome a surprising defeat. A year ago, Clemson had to bounce back from a home loss to Pitt. In 2015, Alabama finished No. 1 after losing at home to Ole Miss. In 2014, Ohio State took the first playoff title despite a home loss to a Virginia Tech team that finished 7-6.

With the regular season now at 12 games, not to mention conference championship games and a playoff system that requires two more wins, a slip-up along the way is almost impossible to avoid.

When coach Dabo Swinney entered the locker room that night in Syracuse, he assured his team that all their goals — an ACC title, a national championship — were still within reach.

Team leaders such as Wilkins reiterated that message in the days and weeks to come.

“We'll be fine,” he told his teammates. “We had a loss last year and were still able to accomplish great things. Don't lose confidence in us. We're still a really good team. We just had one bad night.”

But make no mistake, it was a really bad night.

So bad, in fact, Clemson is trying to pull off an accomplishment that hasn't been done in 40 years — win a national title after losing to a sub-.500 team during the regular season.

In 1977, Notre Dame bounced back from a 20-13 loss at Ole Miss (which would go on to finish 5-6) by winning its final 10 games, culminating with a 38-10 blowout of then-No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

Timing is everything, of course.

The huge blemish on Clemson's resume was largely overlooked by the time the selection committee made its choices for the College Football Playoff, anointing the Tigers with the No. 1 seed.

Contrast that with Alabama, which took its only loss in the regular-season finale to Auburn. That defeat — on the road against a much tougher opponent — kept the Crimson Tide out of the SEC championship game and left it on the brink of being excluded from the playoff after being ranked No. 1 by The Associated Press all season.

In the end, Alabama claimed the final spot ahead of a two-loss Ohio State team that won the Big Ten title, making the Tide the most debated choice among the playoff contenders.

“If we had lost early in the season, it probably wouldn't have been a big deal,” Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts said.

Clemson's loss came at just the right time, providing a jarring but necessary lesson to a group of players still riding the coattails of a national championship season.

“When you become a really good program in college football, it's not just about having great players,” defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “You're going to get everybody's best. Every team is going to be dialed in on every aspect. A lot of teams put their whole season into beating us.”

The Tigers emerged from Syracuse a different team, a team truly capable of winning another championship.

Now, it's almost like that night never really happened.

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