No. 3 Clemson hosts Syracuse with ACC title in sight

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Really good or really lucky?

Which is Clemson? Probably a bit of both.

The No. 3 Tigers (8-0, 5-0 ACC) won five games by seven points or fewer this season with the latest nail-biting installment a 37-34 squeaker at Florida State last week.

That kept them on course for the Atlantic Division title, a berth in the ACC Championship Game and a likely spot in the College Football Playoff as they prepare to host Syracuse on Saturday at Memorial Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

Tigers coach Dabo Swinney would add a third trait to the list: Toughness.

"For our guys to overcome adversity and find a way to win at their place, it's something pretty special," Swinney said. "I can't say enough about the heart and toughness these guys have. They just find ways to win games in difficult situations."

The Tigers had to go to overtime to beat North Carolina State 24-17 and got that opportunity only because the Wolfpack missed a chip-shot field goal attempt as time ran out in the fourth quarter with the game tied.

Against Louisville, the Tigers lost a 28-10 halftime lead and trailed 36-28 midway through the fourth quarter before rallying for two touchdowns. A fourth-down stop at their own 4-yard line preserved their 42-36 victory.

And they trailed by eight points again entering the fourth quarter at Florida State, and it could have been more if a fortuitous flag not nullified a big run by Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook that could have put the Seminoles in position for a least a field goal and 11-point cushion. The Tigers took advantage of the break and went on to a 17-point fourth quarter.

Junior quarterback Deshaun Watson had one of the best games of his career, passing for 378 yards and two touchdowns against the Seminoles. He passed for 300 yards in four of the Tigers' last five games.

The defense also has gotten a boost from the return of defensive end Austin Bryant, who missed the first six games of the season with an injury. The sophomore has two sacks in the last two games.

"Anytime you get a great player back on your team, it's very important," Swinney said. "It's great to get a player like him plugged back in."

Syracuse (4-4, 2-2), operating under first-year coach Dino Babers, is coming off an open date after getting to the .500 mark with consecutive victories over Boston College and ACC Coastal Division frontrunner Virginia Tech in its last two games.

Babers was glad for the break.

It gave quarterback Eric Dungey the chance to rest up from the punishment he has been taking in the pocket and outside it. He's on pace to challenge or break a number of Syracuse offensive records -- if he can stay healthy against some tough defenses. He is seventh nationally in passing yards per game (328.9) and has six 300-yard passing games.

"We really needed the bye," Babers said. "You know, a lot of times when you have a bye, you start off the next game a little bit slower, but we really needed the time to heal.

"The Virginia Tech, the Boston College, the Connecticut, those were physical games, they really were, and we're banged up. We need our guys to get some rest. We need to go out and do some coaching. Our players need to work on their studies a little bit, and then we need to come back together and get ready for the last third of the season."

Syracuse also has goals of its own in the final month, needing two more wins to get to bowl eligibility. For Clemson, the goals are slightly more ambitious, which adds to the stakes.

"When we get into November, the air gets a little thinner," Swinney said. "This is what we call the championship phase of our journey.

"It's a fun time. We've got a great opportunity in front of us, and the best part is we're 8-0 and haven't played our best football yet."