Clemson vs. NC State score: No. 3 Tigers assert their dominance with rout of No. 16 Wolfpack

No. 16 NC State was supposed to be the biggest test standing between No. 3 Clemson and the College Football Playoff when the two undefeated ACC Atlantic rivals teed it up Saturday afternoon. If that is the case, then the Tigers passed with flying colors. True freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence went 26-of-39 passing for 308 yards and one touchdown, and the Tiger defense shut down the Wolfpack offense in a 41-7 win in Death Valley. 

This wasn't just an emphatic win, but a statement to the college football world that Alabama isn't the only juggernaut rolling through the season like a Mack truck. 

For the first time all season against a solid opponent, the Tigers looked like what many expected them to be throughout the course of the season. Lawrence's ability to stretch the field combined with the work of star running back Travis Etienne -- who scored three touchdowns on just 39 yards -- helped the offense come out firing, and it never looked back. This is exactly how it should work with Lawrence under center. 

His ability to take the top off an opposing secondary loosens the defense up, and the running game brings the hammer. The fact that Etienne -- who came into the game averaging 9.17 yards per carry -- didn't have a great game from a yardage perspective is proof that this is a more complete unit than it was last year. Etienne was a big part of wins over Syracuse and Wake Forest, and Lawrence did it himself against the best team Clemson will face all year. Consider it the last piece of Clemson's College Football Playoff puzzle.

The one that was already in place -- the ferocious defense -- was on point against quarterback Ryan Finley and the Wolfpack. Finley was held to 156 yards and threw two interceptions, the Tigers notched 10 tackles for loss and held NC State to just 2 of 12 on third-down conversions. 

What's even more important was the work of the secondary. Finley's worst passing game coming in was against Virginia, when he threw for 247 yards and three touchdowns. That was the only game prior to Saturday that he was held under 300 passing yards. In the only two games against teams that can stretch the field deep, Clemson gave up 430 yards and 250 yards to Texas A&M and Syracuse, respectively. 

Let's not get too far ahead, though. It took Clemson half of the season to find its stride, and top-ranked Alabama hit it from the moment the season started. Saturday's win over NC State doesn't prove that Clemson is a threat to the Crimson Tide right now, but it did prove that it's the clear-cut favorite to win the ACC Atlantic, ACC title and make the College Football Playoff for the fourth straight year.

If Clemson's trajectory keeps pointing up, it will be on Alabama's level come December. 

College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, analyst for CBS Sports HQ and host for the SiriusXM college... Full Bio

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