Bigger stakes, same attitude.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows his No. 1 Tigers are ready for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Saturday after grinding out a 12-0 season.
“We’ve embraced the opportunity,” Swinney said. “There’s no pressure. Pressure comes when you’re not prepared. We’re prepared. We prepare every week.”
Next up, No. 11 North Carolina, which has won 11 straight games since an opening loss to South Carolina.
The Tar Heels (11-1) figure to be Clemson’s toughest test in a month after several weeks of muddling through games against struggling opponents Syracuse, Wake Forest and the Gamecocks this past Saturday. All were wins — and all exposed potential problems Clemson better shore up before this weekend.
“Sometimes we may not play great,” Swinney acknowledged.
If it happens again vs. North Carolina, the Tigers try at a second national title — their last 12-0 season was 1981’s championship season — will be over.
Swinney said his team has overcome problems throughout the season and succeeded, tying the program’s record streak of 15 straight wins by defeating the Gamecocks. Clemson had three fumbles against South Carolina.
“At the end of the day, we still find a way to win the game,” Swinney said. “That speaks to the resolve of this team, the overall talent of our team, the poise of our team, the mental toughness. “
North Carolina, behind quarterback Marquise Williams, has had plenty of fun this season, too.
Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said his players have steadily built up confidence with each victory, something he expects to peak against the Tigers even with the odds stacked heavily against them.
“Our goal is to win the conference championship,” he said. “We can’t control whether we’re in the playoffs.”
The Committee Is Watching: A Clemson win makes this an uncomplicated process. The Tigers have been No. 1 in the playoff rankings all season and would slide into the final four with a win over the Tar Heels. A North Carolina victory could generate more discussion in the committee room. However, the Tar Heels haven’t beaten any team currently in the top 25 and even taking down No. 1 might not be enough to push them into the final four.
Heisman Potential: Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson looks to be a lock to get an invite to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony with his play the past two months. He’ll likely need a monster game to supplant Alabama runner Derrick Henry as the leading contender.
Watson’s done about everything for the Tigers after a slow September start. He leads the ACC in total offense at 331 yards a game and touchdown passes with 27. Watson ran for three touchdowns and a career-best 114 yards in the win over South Carolina.
Looking Back: Clemson won it all in 1981, defeating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl that season for the program’s signature moment. Their last ACC crown came in 2011, which the Tigers followed up with a 70-33 Orange Bowl debacle to West Virginia.
North Carolina was No. 1 for a week in 1948 when it finished 9-1-1 and ended No. 3. Its last ACC title came in 1980 when NFL great Lawrence Taylor led the way for the Tar Heels. The last time they won 11 games was in 1997, the year coach Mack Brown left the Tar Heels for Texas.