Dabo Swinney went against his normal philosophy this week.
Typically, Clemson’s head coach will not shine the light brighter on one game compared to the others. He typically likes to say, “This game is the most important game because it is the next game on the schedule.”
He also uses phrases like “nameless, faceless opponent” during a typical game week. However, this week, Swinney is not trying to downplay the importance of Saturday’s game against 15th-ranked NC State. Though he still believes the outcome will be determined by the way his team plays, he understands to get where he wants No. 3 Clemson to be this year, they first must beat the Wolfpack.
“We can’t win the division this week, that is for sure, and neither can they, but, the winner of this game has the opportunity to stay in control of your destiny, and that is really where you want to be.” Swinney said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “The loser is not out of it, but you got to hope something happens. So, we want to try to do everything we can to stay in control of our destiny and get off to a good start in the second half of our season.”
In other words, Saturday’s 3:30 p.m., kickoff at Clemson’s Death Valley is a de facto championship game for the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
“This is going to be a big game, man,” Swinney said. “They are all huge as we know, but there are not many undefeated teams left out there and you have two of them facing off in the Valley on Saturday. You best believe no team wants to lose.
“You are going to have two teams that are going to be passionate about winning.”
Clemson is 6-0 and 3-0 in the ACC, while NC State is 5-0 and 2-0 in conference play. To add to the suspense of it all, because it is a division game, the winner will subsequently have a two-game lead because they will own the tiebreaker in case both teams finish with the same conference record.
In other words, the loser of the game must hope the winner losses twice in conference play.
“Like Coach Swinney said the other day, if we lose, we will be at the mercy of another team,” defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence said. “So, we are not trying to be at the mercy of another team ever again kind of deal.”
During its three-year reign on the ACC, which began in 2015, Clemson has done a good job of controlling its own fate. In 2015, the Tigers went 8-0 in conference play, and though they lost in 2016 to Pittsburgh, they controlled their own fate because they owned the tiebreaker with Louisville from a head-to-head win earlier that year.
Things could have been dicey last year after losing to Atlantic Division foe Syracuse. However, the Orange already had one conference loss prior to the Clemson game and after beating the Tigers they lost the next week, putting Clemson back in control of its own destiny where it went on to win the division and later a third straight ACC Championship.
“I feel like, just the veterans on this team understand that because in past seasons we have lost one in the middle of the season and we hate that feeling,” Lawrence said. “So, we are just trying to keep the same motivation all season, just going out and dominating and playing our best.”
And though the Tigers have played in big games in the past, for this year’s squad, Saturday’s showdown with NC State, is with out doubt the biggest game of the season, and it isn’t coach speak.
“NC State is a really good football team,” Swinney said. “Schematically, they are one of the best teams we will play all year. They do a tremendous job of coaching their guys and having them in the right position.
“This is what it is all about. You have two undefeated Power 5 teams and it is the same division.”