Clemson players and coaches have said throughout the 2016 season that this year feels completely different from 2015, but with 13 games complete the Tigers are back in a familiar place.
No. 3 Clemson (12-1, 7-1) topped Virginia Tech (9-4, 6-2) 42-35 Saturday night in the ACC Championship game to clinch its second consecutive ACC title and likely its second consecutive College Football Playoff berth.
The Tigers held off a furious Virginia Tech rally from down 21 points late in the third quarter to win back-to-back ACC titles for the first time in 28 years.
“I’m so proud of our guys. We certainly made some mistakes and things like that, but we had some huge drives,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s been 28 years since we’ve been back-to-back champions and we wanted to change that tonight and we got that done.”
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was named the game’s MVP for the second straight year after accounting for 373 total yards and five touchdowns. He likely locked up another invitation to New York for the Heisman ceremony in the process.
Watson passed for 288 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 85 yards and two scores. His only turnover came on an interception on a tipped pass.
Watson and the Tigers appeared to have the game in hand leading 35-14 late in the third quarter before the Hokies stormed back.
Virginia Tech cut the lead to 42-35 with 5:43 remaining and got the ball back with four minutes left down a score but drove to the Clemson 25 before Cordrea Tankersley’s second interception of the game wrapped up the win.
The Hokies had three straight touchdown drives with minimal resistance before Clemson’s defense got a stop when it needed it the most.
Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett caught a pair of first-half touchdowns and finished with four catches for 49 yards. He has 637 yards on the year, which is a Clemson record for a tight end.
Tigers receiver Hunter Renfrow caught only two passes but they were big ones.
With Clemson leading 35-28 midway through the fourth quarter, the Tigers were facing a second-and-19 when Watson found Renfrow over the middle for a diving grab.
Later in the drive, Watson found Renfrow for a 15-yard touchdown catch on a run-pass option where Renfrow did most of his damage after the catch.
Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans kept the Hokies in the game with 264 passing yards and a touchdown and two rushing touchdowns.
His favorite target was Cam Phillips, who caught 12 passes for 92 yards and the score.
Kendall Joseph led Clemson in tackles with 11, while fellow linebacker Ben Boulware added 10. Clemson’s third starting linebacker, Dorian O’Daniel, was ejected from the game in the first quarter for targeting.
Clemson will find out its playoff destination and opponent during the College Football Playoff selection show Sunday afternoon.
“We’re proud that we’re 12-1. We’ve earned an opportunity to go play in the playoff,” Swinney said. “I think we’ve got a heck of a football team. We’re going to be a tough out for somebody.”