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Halfway Home: Clemson’s the class of the ACC. Now comes the hard part.

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

A snapshot of the remaining unbeaten teams at the turn, and how they can stay that way. Today: 7-0 Clemson.

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How they got here. By scoring a lot of points, mainly: The Tigers hung 38 on Auburn, 35 on Florida State, 36 on Boston College and 56 last week in a come-from-behind, 56-45 win at Maryland that featured 14 touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards of total offense. Sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd and freshman receiver Sammy Watkins needed roughly three weeks in the same huddle to ascend to the ranks of elite pass-catch combos residing outside the state of Oklahoma.

But the most impressive triumph to date belonged to the defense in a 23-3 upset at Virginia Tech on Oct. 1, where the offense launched eight punts, went three-and-out four times in the second half alone and was held dramatically below its season averages for yards and points. That was burning the barn down compared to the Hokies, who failed to score a touchdown at home for the first time since September of 1995. It was also Clemson's third win over a ranked team in as many weeks, after dropping eleven of its last twelve.

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Target Date. Georgia Tech gacked up its 6-0 start Saturday in a 24-21 flop at Virginia, but the Yellow Jackets' triple-option attack remains the ACC equivalent of Russian Roulette: Any moment can be an opposing defense's last. Clemson takes its shot on Oct. 29, in Atlanta, where the Jackets have averaged 46 points in four games and the Tigers have dropped three in a row.

Traps and other caveats. The ACC takes a lot of heat for its terrible BCS record and general failure to produce an elite national contender, but you can't beat it for parity: No ACC team has finished a perfect regular season since Florida State forfeited its deed to the league a decade ago, easily the longest streak of any of the six major conferences. The last ACC team to make it to 7-0, Matt Ryan-led Boston College in 2007, ultimately dropped two straight games to unranked teams to open November; the last one before that, Phillip Rivers-led N.C. State in 2002, dropped three straight to unranked teams to open November. The only team to run the table in conference play in the last ten years, Virginia Tech in 2010, only got there after dropping its home opener to an FCS school.

At least the Tigers are beyond that. But given their recent history with big opportunities in front of them — see 2006, 2007 and 2009 — there's no one who doesn't believe they can lose any of the last five games on the schedule.{YSP:MORE}

Why they'll run the table. Georgia Tech is still putting up slightly better numbers for the moment, but Clemson has the league's most balanced, explosive offense, countering Boyd's array of targets with a soon-to-be 1,000-yard rusher (Andre Ellington) at the head of an attack that still keeps it on the ground a solid majority of the time. The Tigers have hit at least 35 points and easily exceeded 400 yards in every game but one, and you won't find me quibbling with any aspect of a 20-point win in Blacksburg.

Why they won't. On the other hand, the defense that showed up at Virginia Tech is the same defense that was ripped for 27 non-garbage-time points by Wofford, and for 435 yards on seven yards per snap by Auburn, and for 336 yards passing by a first-time starter for Florida State, and now for 45 points on 468 yards at Maryland. Going into Atlanta with one of the league's tenth-ranked defense against the run is like sending up a bunch of balloons next to an archery exhibition. (I know: First pistols, now bows and arrows... it's a dangerous offense with a lot of ways to hurt you, is what I'm trying to say.)

Odds of a perfect finish: 1 in 5. If trips to Georgia Tech and South Carolina are roughly 50/50 propositions, the prospects break down like so: There's a 25-percent chance Clemson is going to come out of those two games 2-0, a 25-percent chance they're going to be 2-0 and a 50-percent chance they're going to be 1-1.

When you account for the additional threats presented by North Carolina, Wake Forest, N.C. State and a rematch with either Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game, 20-percent is frankly kind of generous. If the Tigers somehow survive that minefield and wind up playing a three-loss Big East champ in the Orange Bowl, they'll have every right to feel snubbed.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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