RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Trevor Lawrence said he and his Clemson teammates aren’t focused on trying to make a point about their outside-looking-in position in the first College Football Playoff rankings.
Maybe not, but the reigning national champion Tigers sure are playing with an overwhelming edge all the same — and that has for now at least secured their ticket to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Lawrence threw for two scores and ran for another in a dominating first quarter, helping No. 4 Clemson beat North Carolina State 55-10 on Saturday night to clinch the league’s Atlantic Division title.
The Tigers learned this week that they were fifth in the four-team playoff rankings. Yet coach Dabo Swinney had said the Tigers (10-0, 7-0, No. 5 CFP) were in a “good spot” and needed to focus instead on finishing strong.
Since surviving a 21-20 scare at unranked North Carolina in September, the Tigers have won five straight games by 31 or more points.
“I think with something like (the CFP ranking), it’s hard to just avoid it and not see it and not hear any of that,” Lawrence said.
“But we don’t really focus on it, especially now. I mean, after the 12th week or the ACC championship, that’ll be important for sure then. ... If we don’t win next week and the week after that and the week after that, it doesn’t really matter about the playoff if we lose a game.”
Starting that way was enough against the Wolfpack (4-5, 1-4) as Clemson extended its school-record winning streak to 25 games.
Clemson scored touchdowns on all four first-quarter drives, two coming after turnovers to give the Tigers short fields their humming-along offense didn’t even need.
“Our guys were locked in and just really ready to play,” Swinney said. “And our execution was tremendous in that first half. We really played about as clean as you can play. We didn’t make many mistakes.”
There weren’t many positives for N.C. State beyond freshman Zonovan Knight’s 53-yard TD run. That came early in the third quarter, long after the Wolfpack’s typically rowdy fans had fled for the exits to leave the rest of the game to play out in a largely empty Carter-Finley Stadium.
“The bottom line is we can’t turn the football over and win a football game,” Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said. “We turned it over three times in the first half against a team that’s as good as anybody we’re going to play every year. You just can’t do that.”
Clemson: The four-time reigning ACC champions claimed the league’s Atlantic Division title with the win and No. 22 Wake Forest’s loss at Virginia Tech earlier Saturday. That will give the Tigers a shot at becoming the first team in any power conference to win five straight league championship games when they face the Coastal Division champion Dec. 7 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
N.C. State: Injuries have caused an already young team to force even younger players into the lineup, and it didn’t get better Saturday night. A Lawrence keeper ended with three Wolfpack players lying on the turf in pain and ultimately left freshman linebacker Payton Wilson with his left arm in a sling and an ice bag on his shoulder with what Doeren called a shoulder sprain. Redshirt freshman QB Devin Leary got little chance to build confidence in a bumpy second start — including simply dropping the ball in the pocket for a turnover — in a game that got away quickly. N.C. State must win two of the final three games to reach a sixth straight bowl game.
The Tigers could move up in the AP Top 25 with No. 2 Alabama losing to No. 1 LSU. They also could rise in the playoff rankings with Alabama (No. 3 CFP) and No. 5 Penn State (No. 4 CFP) both falling Saturday.
Clemson gave offensive lineman John Simpson and linebacker James Skalski a chance to show off some positional versatility in this one.
The Tigers’ 42-0 halftime lead included 6-foot-4, 330-pound Simpson taking a goal-line handoff and plowing in for a 1-yard touchdown.
“Getting in there was insane,” Simpson said, adding: “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
And near the end of the game, after Clemson added a 1-yard scoring run with 11 seconds left, the Tigers let Skalski unsuccessfully kick the extra point.
Swinney said Skalski makes kicks in practice but “all of a sudden, he got a little stage fright out there tonight.”
Clemson: The Tigers host No. 22 Wake Forest next Saturday.
N.C. State: Louisville visits the Wolfpack next Saturday.