CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson has taken a step back in the rankings and many of the Tigers are saying that's not a bad thing.
The second-ranked Tigers slipped from their perch atop the polls after an unimpressive win against unranked North Carolina, which some say could prove to be an important step toward another national title.
Players are pointing to close games that fueled runs to national championships.
Clemson needed a pair of close September calls to beat Texas A&M (28-26) and Syracuse (27-23) before the offense caught fire and grew into the championship juggernaut that routed Alabama 44-16 on the game's biggest stage.
"We hadn't been in that situation yet and I'm glad we got there and came out with the 'W,'" Clemson right guard Gage Cervenka said of last week's win at Chapel Hill. "It shows we've got this fight in us."
Clemson got a late two-point stop with the Tar Heels poised to take the lead with less than two minutes to go before holding on to win 21-20 . Cervenka said it was nerve-wracking and exciting and maybe most of all, part of a successful script that in the past has ended with the Tigers on top.
Clemson (5-0) will look to build on that fight during its bye week before playing host to Florida State on Oct. 12.
It was Clemson's 20th straight win but the close call set off alarms about the Tigers, a nearly four-touchdown favorite. Defensive tackle Jordan Williams isn't concerned.
"Everybody expects us to win by 40 plus" whenever they take the field, Williams said. "But if they're a good team, we're human and they're human."
Cervenka wasn't happy with the mistakes the offense made — there were six penalties and a fumble by tailback Travis Etienne. All of the Tigers should take heart, he said, that no one allowed the problems to keep them from playing hard and smart.
"We have a young team," said Cervenka, a fifth-year lineman. "I thought it was very big that we didn't get down on ourselves."
That probably won't keep the coaches from getting down on them during film study and meetings in the team's abbreviated week.
"We've got to improve our precision, our attention to detail," coach Dabo Swinney said. "We're been losing the turnover margin the past couple of games. Critical penalties. It's all on us to get better."
The Tigers will work until Friday then Swinney will let them go home for a long weekend before continuing preparations against the Seminoles, who have lost four in a row against Clemson.
Clemson safety Nolan Turner said the team will take in its errors and work to correct them, gradually improving week by week as they head to what's expected to be a fifth-straight Atlantic Coast Conference title and College Football Playoff appearance.
"We're not finished yet, we're not a finished product," he said.
That was evident against North Carolina.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw for 206 yards, below his season average. The Tigers' other Heisman Trophy contender in Etienne managed just 67 yards and had a costly fumble. The defense could not prevent North Carolina from going on a drive of 8:32 with less than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter for a touchdown that led to the dramatic final two-point try.
Still, Lawrence ran for a score and threw for another. Etienne also had a rushing TD. Clemson's defense rose up at the end to make it enough for another victory.
"I feel like this is going to help us grow," Clemson defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney said. "Especially with such a young team that going into the bye week, it shows us a lot about ourselves."
But only, Pinckney added, if the players put the work in to eliminate their mistakes.
"You could exhaust everything in that game" with an off week ahead, Pinckney said. "Now, it's kind of iron-sharpens-iron this week with offense, defense and special teams."