No. 1 Clemson won its 2019 ACC Championship Game rematch with Virginia on Saturday night in Death Valley, but the 41-23 result leaves plenty of room for improvement as this year's squad looks to return to that same College Football Playoff stage in 2020.
Trevor Lawrence looks great in the box score with 329 passing yards and three touchdowns on 25 of 38 passes, as does Travis Etienne with 73 rushing yards and a touchdown on 14 attempts with a team-high 114 receiving yards and a touchdown on five catches, but there was incongruence to the offense that allowed the four-touchdown underdogs to hang around throughout the night. While the lead was never cut to less than 10 points after the late stages of the first quarter, Virginia's relentless effort kept Clemson's starters in the game deep into the fourth quarter for the first time this season.
"We haven't really had any adversity. You hate to say it's good for you, but it's usually good for you. So we got a little Robitussin tonight," Dabo Swinney told the ACC Network after the game. "We were sloppy. We could have put the game away."
The fact that Virginia was able to keep pressure on Clemson is a nod not only to its defense but new starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong and his ability to make plays with his legs. Armstrong led Virginia with 89 rushing yards on a team-high 22 attempts to pair with 270 passing yards and three passing touchdowns. He was picked off twice, but one of those interceptions was one of the greatest catches -- offense or defense -- that you'll see all season by Clemson cornerback Andrew Booth.
One of the big questions for Clemson's offense going into the game was how the passing game had developed after a week off and two weeks separated from its last FBS competition. What we saw against Virginia revealed that it's a combination of experience and youth, with senior Amari Rodgers (six catches on eight targets for 72 yards and two touchdowns) and sophomore Frank Ladson Jr. (five catches on seven targets for 71 yards) as the preferred targets with Etienne serving as the all-purpose everything offensive weapon that is the secret sauce to the 2020 Clemson offense.
The exciting thing about judging Clemson as a national championship contender is that we don't have to wait until the College Football Playoff to do it in 2020. The ACC has more teams that are top-25 caliber than it did a year ago, and those tests pop up on the Tigers' schedule starting next week with a visit from No. 8 Miami. The Hurricanes were off in Week 5 and preparing for this high-profile matchup, and their combination of elite defensive line play with a potent offensive attack makes for a great test.
CBS Sports was with you the entire way updating this story with the latest from Virginia at Clemson on Saturday night. This story will be updated shortly with additional takeaways from Clemson's ACC victory.