Something is happening in Raleigh, N.C., this coming Saturday that has not happened since 1979 … Clemson and NC State are playing for a championship in football. Well, sort of.
The winner of Saturday’s ACC Showdown at Carter-Finley Stadium will gain control of the ACC’s Atlantic Division. The fifth-ranked Tigers head into the game 5-1 in the ACC, while No. 19 NC State is 4-0 in the conference.
If Clemson wins, it will then need to beat Florida State on Nov. 11 to claim its sixth Atlantic Division title under Dabo Swinney and play in the ACC Championship Game for a fifth time.
If NC State wins, it will still have three games to play in the ACC, but because it would own the head-to-head game against Clemson, it would have to lose all three games, plus the Tigers beat FSU to lose the crown.
Playing in games of this magnitude is something Clemson is used to doing. Since 2011, the Clemson program is the second winningest program in college football behind Alabama with 77 wins.
Besides beating the likes of SEC powerhouses such as LSU, Georgia and Auburn from time-to-time, the Tigers have played in and won three ACC Championship Games. They played in three Orange Bowls and won two, one as part of the College Football Playoff. They’ve also won the Fiesta Bowl in the College Football Playoff and played in two national championship games, including last year’s victory over Alabama.
“It has kind of become the norm for us and that is a great spot to be in,” Clemson head coach Jeff Scott said on Monday.
This year alone, Clemson has played in some big games – beating Auburn in Week 2 and then going on the road and taking down ACC hopefuls Louisville and Virginia Tech with ESPN’s College GameDay in town.
“We have had to go on the road and play some talented teams already,” Scott said. “I think it really goes back to the mindset that Coach (Dabo) Swinney and our staff have really worked hard to get these guys to buy into it. It really is not about the opponent, but about ourselves.”
While Clemson (7-1, 5-1 ACC) has that mindset, David Doeren is still in the process of teaching his team how to handle these types of games.
The Wolfpack (6-2, 4-0 ACC) had won six straight games and were ranked No. 14 nationally before being humbled at Notre Dame this past Saturday. Learning to handle success is an ongoing process for the NC State program.
At the start of the season, after being talked about as Doeren’s best team and as a possible contender in the ACC Atlantic Division all throughout the preseason, NC State laid an egg in a season opening loss to South Carolina.
With all the pressure gone, the Wolfpack climbed back up the mountain with wins over Florida State and Louisville to put itself in first place in the ACC Atlantic Division standings, while peaking at No. 14 in the polls. But against a top 10 Irish team, they gave 318 yards rushing and were held to 50 in a 35-14 loss.
Now comes the ‘Packs tough test to date, defending national champion Clemson, who is still in the hunt for the CFP for a third straight year.
“If you get to the mindset where you are trying to play up to a certain opponent, you are not going to be able to be as successful on a consistent basis as long as we have been,” Scott said.
Though it may be a big game for NC State … that is not the case at Clemson. The message this week is no different than any other week for the Tigers.
“Our guys know what is at stake,” Scott said. “It’s a game that may have a major impact on our next goal, which is to win the division. But I think there is a lot of confidence by our guys because we have been in these kinds of games before and I think our guys know the formula.
“If we take care of the ball and control the things we can control, then we have a great opportunity.”
Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel says the team has a flat-line approach when it comes to playing in championship type games and atmospheres.
“We come in here every week and I’m sure the other guys say the same thing, ‘it’s a one-game season,’” he said. “You can’t prepare any different than we did last week because if you do you are cheating the game.
“So I feel like the coaches do a good job of keeping us honest and having that mindset week in and week out of having that rearview mirror, the next game is the biggest game of the season because it is the next one. Guys really buy into that and I think that is really a good thing to have for a team.”