CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Clemson is still unbeaten, still on course to claim another Atlantic Coast Conference championship along with a trip to the College Football Playoff.
That doesn't mean the now-No. 2 and reigning national champion Tigers are playing anything near flawless football.
Clemson's shortcomings were all on display Saturday at North Carolina. The Tigers committed too many penalties. They lost the turnover battle. Star quarterback Trevor Lawrence again didn't have the big numbers everyone thought would be routine this season. And they had to stop a late 2-point conversion to survive in a game the Tigers were favored to win by four touchdowns.
The close call ultimately cost Clemson the No. 1 ranking it has held since the preseason as Alabama jumped over the Tigers in the AP Top 25 Sunday.
Yet coach Dabo Swinney had a different takeaway: His Tigers had plenty to learn from a close September win, just like they did last year on the way to a second national championship in three seasons.
"We don't get defined by one game, whether it's good or bad," Swinney said after the 21-20 victory. "We just move on. You learn from each one. Sometimes people say, 'Oh well, sometimes it's good to lose a game.' I'm like, 'Well, why do we got to lose to learn?' I like learning when we win. It's a lot better."
That's why Swinney was promising a "nice little film session on Monday" to start the Tigers' open week.
Clemson (5-0, 3-0 ACC) was flagged for five false starts and a substitution penalty. The Tigers committed a turnover when Travis Etienne's first-half fumble set up a UNC touchdown drive while failing to record a takeaway of their own. And their offense never looked close to its high-scoring form of a year ago, finishing with 331 yards and 21 points in the lowest outputs of their program-record 20-game winning streak.
They faced their biggest deficit of the season when the Tar Heels went ahead 7-0 early in the first quarter, and they didn't lead until Lawrence's touchdown pass to Tee Higgins with 9:54 left in the fourth.
"We kept encouraging each other and never started to point the finger or anything like that," Lawrence said. "We were obviously frustrated in ourselves, but it was never like blaming anyone for anything. We just stuck together and found a way to win."
In this case, that meant taking down UNC quarterback Sam Howell on an option keeper on the conversion try with 1:17 left, surviving against a team that had gone 2-14 in league play over the past two seasons.
"It's not easy to win," Swinney said. "I know that we're supposed to just destroy everybody, like nobody else has scholarships, nobody else has coaches. ... We're not perfect, we don't coach perfect. Unfortunately we don't play perfect every down, every game. But we found a way to win kind of an ugly game in a lot of ways."
Clemson might not need much more to claim a fifth straight ACC championship considering its recent domination of the league. Clemson is 37-2 against ACC opponents since the start of the 2015 season, with the last loss coming nearly two years ago and most wins by lopsided margins.
An unbeaten run, regardless of whether the Tigers are ranked No. 1, would likely put them back in the four-team playoff. Yet the Tigers will certainly have to play better if they want to win another national title.
The Tigers were in similar position almost exactly a year ago, when they barely beat Syracuse after Lawrence was knocked from the game only days after former starting QB Kelly Bryant had decided to transfer. Clemson rallied to win 27-23 and reach 5-0, and then didn't play another game closer than 20 points.
"We're going to be all right," Swinney said.
"Last year, we were a team that went to the playoffs and won one game by 27, another one by 28," Swinney said. "And it was the same team that, we barely beat Syracuse. ... We barely beat Texas A&M, remember? What's wrong with us? Ain't nothing wrong with us. It's just college football, we're just trying to get better, one week at a time and try to find a win.
"That's what we did. We've got a lot we've got to improve. But I like the guys we've got, wouldn't trade them for anybody."
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