CLEMSON, S.C. – Top-five football isn't supposed to be this ugly.
Top-five football should be strength on strength, either air-it-out track meets where the teams top 75 combined points or thudding grapples where two field goals are enough to win. But on this night, No. 5 Florida State curb-stomped No. 3 Clemson 51-14, and it wasn't even that close.
You could call this game a next-level performance from FSU freshman quarterback Jameis Winston. You could call it a career-marring scar for Clemson senior quarterback Tajh Boyd. You could call it Florida State's return to the national championship conversation, or you could call it the latest spectacular version of Clemsoning. You'd be right no matter which angle you chose.
Two defining moments characterized this rarest of games: an ACC October matchup with national title implications. The first came on the initial play from scrimmage, when Clemson receiver Stanton Steckinger fumbled away the ball on his own 29. Three plays later, Winston connected with Kelvin Benjamin on the kind of upheld-on-review touchdown that's already become Winston's signature. Florida State was up seven just 90 seconds into the game, and Clemson would never be any closer.
The bookend: Clemson's final, meaningless drive, when backup QB Cole Stoudt guided the beaten Tigers down to the goal line. As Stoudt rallied Clemson for a last-second touchdown, the tomahawk chop of Florida State's band echoed through a near-deserted Death Valley.
Clemson has always been one of the most SEC of ACC schools, football-mad in a conference where most schools regard fall as a necessary waiting period before basketball tips off. It's fitting, then, on a day in which so many of the SEC's favored sons fell apart that Clemson, ranked No. 3 coming into Saturday, would suffer the same fate as Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M and so many more favorites.
In short, this was the 2013 version of Clemsoning: that game every Tiger fan dreads, that day where a season's worth of hard work falls apart in a performance so spectacularly awful, you can't look away.
Take nothing away from Florida State here, which rode a near-flawless offense and a man-everywhere defense to trick Clemson into mistakes and then turn those mistakes into touchdowns. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney nailed it:
"Florida State might be the best team in the nation," he said. "We knew they were good coming in. You don't have a lot of room for error against a team like that. You can't make the mistakes that we made unless they're making them too, and they didn't."
But "mistakes" is about the gentlest word you could use for a game in which Clemson turned the ball over four times, leading to 24 Seminole points. Clemson played this game like your old man trying to figure out a Madden controller. And the blame for much of that rests right on the shoulders of Boyd, who looked ill-prepared and inaccurate for most of the game. To his credit, though, he shouldered that blame.
"I didn't perform the way I was capable of performing," he said after the game. "As a leader, it's my job to go out and lead and perform, and I just didn't do that tonight."
Boyd's final line: 18 for 38 for 164 yards and a touchdown against two interceptions. Although he moved into third place all-time in career ACC passing yards, just past former FSU quarterback Chris Weinke, his 164 total yards of offense were his lowest ever against an ACC opponent and his second-lowest all-time.
"I hate to say it," former NFL quarterback and current NBC Sports analyst Shaun King wrote on Twitter, "but Tajh Boyd played himself outta the first 3 rounds tonight."
Boyd was dressed in a coat and tie after the game, sporting a black boot with a Clemson logo on his right foot. ("It's fine," he said of the ankle. "A sprain. It'll be fine.") All around him in the hallway beneath the west end zone, fellow Clemson players and coaches spoke to the media and tried to make sense of how quickly and decisively their national championship hopes had vanished.
Defensive end Vic Beasley was still in full uniform, cleats and all. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins had a stripe of turf paint running along the length of his left arm. Player and coach alike used the same words – "character," "heart," "pride," "disappointment" – in different combinations, as if maybe the right sequence would somehow clarify how a national championship-caliber team could give up the most points in the seven-decade history of Death Valley.
"We're done with this game," Boyd said in closing. "The plan is to go 12-1. That's what we're going to do."
And with that, he limped off down the hallway of a brightly-lit but tomb-silent Death Valley.
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