All year long, Clemson has been a marked team. As the national runner-up, the defending ACC Champions and the preseason’s second-ranked team, the Tigers were pretty much everyone’s “Super Bowl” in 2016.
Being the hunted, as opposed to be the hunter, was a different dynamic for a program that constantly had to prove itself from 2011-’15. There is a different mentality and approach that has to go into.
“Everyone wants to beat us, and everyone is going to play different and make sure they bring their ‘A’ game whenever they step on the field with Clemson,” quarterback Deshaun Watson said. “We still have the same mentality, same focus and same preparation. Everyone is going to be focused to the nth degree. We just go out there and compete.
“We understand it’s hard to win at this level consistently… It’s hard to go out and perform and blow everyone out. It’s not always going to happen like that.”
For the most part, with the exception of the loss to Pitt on Nov. 12, Clemson has handled it well. The Tigers finished the year 11-1, are ranked No. 3 in both the Associated Press and the Amway Coaches Polls, won the ACC’s Atlantic Division and are playing for a second straight ACC Championship on Saturday against No. 18 Virginia Tech at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida.
Now the Hokies stand between them and returning to the College Football Playoffs for a second straight year.
“This team has been very easy to coach. Very easy to coach,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We have unbelievable leadership, and I think, again, it goes back to when we started this spring, a total different mindset just because they had an experience to draw on that no previous team had.
“They’d had a 14-1 season, but we lost the wrong game. Alabama was 14-1, too, but they won the National Championship. They lost the right game. That was a tough pill for everybody to swallow going back to work in the spring. It’s a different mindset, I think, a different understanding of knowing what it takes, not just thinking that you know what it takes, but also knowing that you’re good enough. The leaders of this team have been incredible, and then our schedule has been good as far as we haven’t had to play 10 straight (games).”
Heading into the ACC Championship Game last year at this time, the Tigers were playing their 10th straight game without a bye week. Swinney said his team was exhausted, especially his defense, which lacked depth at key positions. Guys like Ben Boulware, B.J. Goodson, Shaw Lawson and Kevin Dodd played just about on every down in those 10 games.
“Our open date this year fell at a good time. You know, we’ve caught some breaks as far as being able to keep some guys healthy, but we’re still a very young team, and we’re playing two true freshmen at tackle,” Swinney said. “We had our starting right tackle, who’s not with us right now, and so we’ve had to go with a true freshman, and then Anchrum, the other true freshman. Those two guys have stepped up and have done a nice job.
“This team has had its own challenges, but they’ve handled it well.”
—Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports