Clemson wasn’t supposed to be playing for the ACC Championship again, and certainly not as the nation’s No. 1 team. Deshaun Watson was gone, and Florida State returned one of the conference’s top quarterbacks in Deondre Francois, so the balance of power in the league was supposed to swing back in the Seminoles’ favor. It was Florida State that was expected to claim the conference title and represent the ACC in the College Football Playoff, not Clemson.
At least, that was the supposition or prediction of many pundits. But the Tigers didn’t get the memo.
While Florida State is 5-6 and fighting for a bowl berth, Clemson is ranked as the country’s top team and preparing to play in their third consecutive ACC Championship Game on Saturday against No. 7 Miami.
“It’s awesome,” Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel said this week. “No one expected us to get as far as we are right now, and that’s just a compliment to our team. We didn’t get that memo.
“I’m just really proud of our guys and how we’ve responded and proven everyone wrong. We weren’t expected to make it this far, so we’re just going out every day and not being worried about the outside sources and just playing the best ball we can.”
Would Kelly Bryant be able to fill the big shoes of Watson as Clemson’s starting quarterback? How would the Tigers replace the production left by Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman, Jordan Leggett and others? Sure, the defense was going to be stingy, but would the Tigers be good enough offensively to get back into the top four?
Those were questions surrounding Clemson externally entering the season. Internally, the Tigers weren’t worried about the outside noise but instead focused on themselves and finding new contributors in order to avoid a drop-off.
“I think the biggest question for us was leadership — who’s going to lead, who’s going to step up and take things into their own hands,” O’Daniel said. “I think as soon as we met after the national championship and going into winter workouts, guys really had to re-evaluate who they wanted to be as a team and who they wanted to be as an individual on the team as far as leading. And I think we did a good job of guys stepping into those roles and everyone following and guys leading by example.”
Plenty of leaders have stepped up for Clemson, with O’Daniel chief among them. The senior leads the defense with 95 tackles and was recently named one of five finalists for the 2017 Butkus Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top linebacker.
Offensively, Bryant has remained poised in the face of great scrutiny and expectations while leading Clemson to an 11-1 record. Players such as running backs Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster and receivers Hunter Renfrow and Deon Cain have stepped up for the Tigers’ offense, which ranks in the top 25 nationally in scoring (35.2 points per game), total offense (457.9 yards per game) and red zone conversion rate (91.9 percent).
Overall, Clemson leads the ACC with 13 all-conference selections, seven on offense and six on defense – a testament to the Tigers’ “next man up” mentality.
Because of that, Clemson needs just one more win over Miami on Saturday night in Charlotte to capture its third straight conference crown and advance to the playoff for the third straight year — something not many thought the Tigers would be in position to do.
“We’ve been there and we know what it takes, so the moment is never too big for us because we’ve been in similar situations like we’re going through this year,” O’Daniel said. “So we’re just taking it day-by-day and treating it like the first game of the season.
“At the end of the day we’re playing Clemson. If we don’t lose to Clemson, we should be all right.”