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Clemson, for now, continues to look overrated after beating Louisville

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Years ago, when Alabama entered the college basketball season No. 9 in the country, famously hilarious coach Wimp Sanderson declared his distrust for that ranking.

"If we're the ninth-best team in the country," Sanderson said, "I'm a left-handed ham sandwich."

Clemson's football team currently has the same ranking in the USA Today poll. The Sanderson declaration seems to fit the Tigers, too. But coach Dabo Swinney did not go ham sandwich here Thursday night.

Clemson is undefeated and, at present, overrated. Yet Swinney wasn't here to scoff at the ranking or at his team's difficult, 20-17 victory over Louisville. The three opponents the Tigers have beaten are a combined 0-5 against FBS competition, but Swinney doesn't do Doubting Dabo or Discouraging Dabo. That's not his style.

"We're improving, that's all I can tell you," Swinney said. "We're not a great team yet."

It seemed reasonable to ask how far away Clemson is from being a great team.

Dabo Swinney thinks the Tigers will continue to get better. (AP)
Dabo Swinney thinks the Tigers will continue to get better. (AP)

"We're getting better," Swinney said. "We're improving. I think we have a chance to be a great team by November. That's when we want to be great."

That timetable may not work with the schedule. After a bye week, here's what Clemson has ahead of it between Oct. 3 and Nov. 7: Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Boston College, at Miami, at North Carolina State, Florida State. Combined record of those teams right now: 12-0.

If the Tigers want to win the Atlantic Coast Conference and play in the College Football Playoff, they will have to play better than they showed here.

Give Clemson credit for facing its first adversity of the season, trailing 10-7 in the second half in its first road game, and then scoring the next 13 points. Give Clemson credit for making just enough plays to not give up that 20-10 lead and hang on for the win. Give Clemson credit for beating up Louisville in the trenches, rushing for 202 yards and allowing the Cardinals only 19 on the ground.

As Swinney pointed out, winning on the road in conference is hard. Pretty much all the time. For a team that has just three seniors according to the pregame depth chart, this is an accomplishment.

Yet it was easy to watch this team in this game and suspect that Clemson is destined to fall short of grand expectations yet again.

Louisville is a struggling team, having started its third different quarterback in three games – and not because anyone has gotten injured. The Cardinals' offensive line is woeful. They've led for a total of 10 minutes and 15 seconds in three games, two of them at home, one of them against Houston.

This is probably a team Clemson should have handled fairly easily. Yet it didn't.

Jordan Leggett (left) celebrates after scoring on a 25-yard catch in the third quarter. (AP)
Jordan Leggett (left) celebrates after scoring on a 25-yard catch in the third quarter. (AP)

Fans dying to know whether the Tigers' offense would sizzle the way it did under Chad Morris (now the head coach at SMU) didn't get a lot of thrills Thursday. Under new coordinator Tony Elliott, the Tigers were fairly conservative and somewhat predictable: Five of Clemson's first 10 possessions began the same way – getting the ball to wideout Artavis Scott on the perimeter. Only one of those five plays went for big yardage.

Quarterback Deshaun Watson, a five-star recruit, was OK against Louisville. His stats were decent: 253 yards total offense, a pair of touchdown passes, 21 of 30 passing. But he also threw two interceptions and missed a wide-open play that could have pretty much iced the game in the fourth quarter.

He'll have to play better in the coming weeks for Clemson to keep winning.

Beyond an unspectacular offense, there was the overall flirtation with blowing this game that leaves those nagging Clemson doubts. No sooner did the Tigers get up 10 points in the fourth than they gave up a 100-yard kickoff return.

And Louisville had its chances thereafter. The Cardinals drove to Clemson's 21-yard-line but senior kicker John Wallace pushed a tying 38-yard field goal just wide. They got a final chance, with no timeouts and 72 seconds left, and put a scare into the Tigers again.

From the Louisville 40, quarterback Kyle Bolin threw a strike over the middle to tight end Micky Crum. He sprinted past midfield and then veered hard right, running out of bounds at the Clemson 37. Problem with that: the clock stops automatically after a first down, so getting out of bounds was not nearly as important as gaining yardage – and he may have given away as many as 10 yards with the right turn.

From there, Louisville's final three plays were a debacle. An early shotgun snap sent Bolin scurrying to retrieve the loose ball and fling it out of bounds for an incompletion. Then he took a sack, when taking a sack was not an option. With the clock under 10 seconds, Bolin chucked the ball deep on a Hail Mary when none of his receivers went deep. It was easily intercepted, and that was the ballgame.

Clemson had escaped. It's good to win on the road in league play. It's good to be 3-0. But the Tigers' performance was the stuff of left-handed ham sandwiches, not a harbinger of greatness.