Nobody built a better September resume than defending national champion Clemson, but Friday taught us to never assume anything about the College Football Playoff race.
Syracuse stunned No. 2 Clemson 27-24 at the Carrier Dome on Friday night. The Tigers never led, and they saw their 11-game winning streak get snapped.
Clemson started quarterback Kelly Bryant, who injured his ankle in last Saturday's win over Wake Forest, but Bryant was not 100 percent and exited the game with a head injury late in the second quarter. No matter who was playing quarterback, Clemson struggled to gain traction. Second-year coach Dino Babers and Syracuse outmaneuvered Dabo Swinney and his staff all night in an upset that had no fluke aspects to it. Syracuse simply outplayed Clemson.
Afterward, Babers' postgame locker-room performance lived up to high expectations:
The Orange set the tone from their first drive, as Eric Dungey led them 72 yards in 10 plays, capped by a 23-yard touchdown pass to Dontae Strickland. Clemson quickly answered, but after a missed Tigers field goal, Dungey hit Ervin Philips for a 66-yard touchdown.
Syracuse is making it look easy against the defending champs 👀 pic.twitter.com/dRpNySOX3m- ESPN (@espn) October 13, 2017
Babers' offense did what nobody else has been able to do against Clemson's defense this season. The Tigers had been dominant thus far. They contained Lamar Jackson, held Auburn to six points with the help of 11 sacks and mostly dominated Virginia Tech. Friday night was far different, as Babers -- known for building great offenses at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green -- and his offense found a spark and exploited poor coverage in the Clemson secondary, especially with Philips and Steve Ishmael.
The Orange went on the attack and made the Tigers look vulnerable and mortal.
Even when Clemson looked like it would wrestle control of the game, as the heavy favorite typically does at some point in such games, Syracuse never relented. After a Syracuse touchdown was taken off the board because of offensive pass interference in the second quarter, Clemson's Tanner Muse returned a fumble 63 yards for a tying touchdown. But the Orange nevertheless led at halftime, adding a field goal to retake the lead.
Scoop-n-score ... Tiger style 😎 pic.twitter.com/rg7C9b5s2N- ESPN (@espn) October 14, 2017
Clemson got a 52-yard touchdown run from Travis Etienne midway through the third quarter to tie the game at 24, but it was the only touchdown the Tigers managed with Zerrick Cooper in at quarterback for Bryant. Late in the third quarter, Alex Spence missed a 38-yard field goal, his second miss of the night.
Known for its fast-pace offense, Syracuse grinded out six minutes of game clock in response, going 68 yards in 16 plays, with Cole Murphy hitting a 30-yard field goal with 9:41 left. The Tigers responded by moving into Syracuse territory, but on a fourth-and-six at the Orange 41-yard line, punter Will Spiers launched a fake punt pass downfield that fell incomplete with 6:10 left.
Despite owning a dominant defensive front that has often humiliated opponents, Clemson never got the ball back. Syracuse converted three straight third downs to put itself in position to run out the clock, including a third-and-eight keeper by Dungey in which he stretched out to just get the first down and move the chains for the final time.
The party is on in Syracuse! pic.twitter.com/QAaupdtvwK- ESPN (@espn) October 14, 2017
Dungey completed 20 of 32 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns, and he ran 21 times for 61 yards. Syracuse ran 83 plays for 440 yards, an average of 5.3 yards per play that wouldn't be particularly impressive if it wasn't for the opponent. Clemson destroyed Syracuse 54-0 last year. This time, the Orange put up 27 points -- more than any of Clemson's first six opponents -- and held the Clemson to 24 points, only 17 of which came on offense. The Tigers ran just 57 plays for 317 yards, actually averaging more yards per play than Syracuse (5.6), but they were boosted by a couple big runs and converted just 2 of 11 third downs. They were erratic on offense and mistake-prone on defense. Against that previously stingy Clemson defense, Syracuse's offense did a far better job sustaining drives, and it ran 28 plays on its final two possessions alone, grinding away 12:14 of the final 15:45.
It's the second straight year that Clemson has taken a shocking loss in ACC play, after it lost to Pitt at home last November. Those Tigers were able to bounce back from an upset, win the ACC and make the playoff again, proving that a good team can survive one bad loss. It would be unwise to rule out a similar bounce back from Clemson this year: This performance was marred by injury problems at quarterback, and the Tigers still own three impressive wins already, with opportunities to amass more down the road.
But because of what Syracuse pulled off on Friday night -- quarterback injury or not, the Orange clearly outplayed the Tigers in most phases of the game -- the road back to the playoff to defend the national title looks perilous for the Tigers after speculation about Bama-Clemson III ran rampant the past few weeks.
Clemson closed as a 23.5-point favorite against Syracuse.- ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 14, 2017
This is their biggest upset loss in the last 40 seasons.
In a tough ACC Atlantic featuring Louisville and Florida State and N.C. State teams that the Tigers have yet to face, Clemson got handed a loss by another team on the rise, with Babers providing more evidence of improving depth in the ACC because of a string of impressive coaching hires.
For a month, Clemson looked like a legitimate repeat national title contender. It's offense has clearly not been as impressive without Deshaun Watson, but it had mostly cruised, making big plays when it needed them to support the defense. That all fell apart Friday against a Syracuse team hungry for a program-changing win.
Dabo is all class. Can clearly see him say "I'm so happy for you" to Dino Babers after a potentially season changing loss. pic.twitter.com/2M5nsLtARC- Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) October 14, 2017
On a night when so much seemed to go wrong for Clemson, Syracuse repeatedly stepped up and capitalized, earning a win that upended all expectations.
Dome Defended. pic.twitter.com/iRgBLQ7TJT- Syracuse Football (@CuseFootball) October 14, 2017