No. 1 Clemson looks every inch the defending national champ vs. No. 7 Miami

Clemson Tigers wide receiver Deon Cain (8) jogs into the end zone for a third quarter touchdown against the Miami Hurricanes in their ACC Championship game Saturday, Dec. 02, 2017 in Charlotte, NC. (Monica Herndon, Times)
Clemson Tigers wide receiver Deon Cain (8) jogs into the end zone for a third quarter touchdown against the Miami Hurricanes in their ACC Championship game Saturday, Dec. 02, 2017 in Charlotte, NC. (Monica Herndon, Times)
Published Dec. 3, 2017

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If Miami's first 11 games showed just how far it has come in a hurry, the 12th was a stark realization of just how far the Hurricanes have left to go to return to glory.

No. 1 Clemson dominated No. 7 Miami in every phase of the game, from the first whistle to the last, in a 38-3 ACC championship game blowout that never seemed that close. Going back to their 2015 meeting, Clemson put up 96 consecutive points on Miami before a garbage-time field goal ended Saturday's shutout.

"They thoroughly whipped us," Miami coach Mark Richt said.

That whipping sends Clemson (12-1) to its third consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff. The Tigers will almost certainly defend the national championship they won last season in Tampa as the No. 1 seed.

Miami (10-2) will probably be headed home to the Orange Bowl for the first time since 2003. It'll be a nice consolation prize to end Richt's second season, but it's short of what his Hurricanes seemed capable of three weeks ago when they destroyed Notre Dame.

Maybe Miami's luck ran out. It's one thing to keep eking out wins over less talented opponents, the way the Hurricanes did against Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Syracuse. It's another to try to do that against a Clemson team Richt called "as good as anybody in America."

Maybe the injuries piled up. The Hurricanes lost standout running back Mark Walton in October, then lost go-to tight end Chris Herndon and blue-chip receiver Ahmmon Richards in the last week. Three key defensive players — including starting lineman Kendrick Norton and defensive back Trajan Bandy — were shaken up in Saturday's first quarter.

Maybe fatigue made the attrition worse. Miami had played 11 weeks in a row since Hurricane Irma.

But most likely, Miami simply isn't ready for prime time. The Hurricanes made the kind of errors great teams don't make on stages like this — in front of a sold-out Bank of America Stadium crowd of 74,372, in a de facto College Football Playoff quarterfinal.

Already trailing 7-0, the Hurricanes' first drive stalled, until Sickles High alumnus Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled the punt for Clemson. Given a second chance and the energy that accompanies the famed turnover chain, Miami's offense … stalled again. Then all-ACC kicker Michael Badgley missed a 46-yard field goal to waste the drive.

The lowlights kept coming.

The Hurricane offense totaled only 22 first-quarter yards. At halftime, they had 64; that's even fewer than the 93 they amassed in the 58-0 debacle against Clemson two years ago in a game that got Al Golden fired and Richt hired. They failed to convert 12 of their first 14 third downs and committed three turnovers.

"There were a lot of opportunities missed," said quarterback Malik Rosier, who finished 14-of-29 for 110 yards and two interceptions.

Their Hurricane defense allowed touchdowns on their first three drives and let four different Tigers finish with rushing scores. They were helpless as Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant started 15-of-15 passing — the best stretch in ACC title game history, breaking the mark set by former Tigers superstar Deshaun Watson.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Their special teams included that missed field goal and a shanked punt — and that was just the first quarter.

Richt was quick to give credit to a dominant opponent celebrating its fourth league title under coach Dabo Swinney. The Tigers have won 43 of their past 46 games. They improved to 16-1 at night over the last two years and 11-1 in top-15 matchups since 2015. They're four quarters away from making a third consecutive national title game.

"Right now they're the measuring stick..." Richt said. "In time, we'll catch up to the measuring stick."

But Saturday proved that time is not now.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.