No. 4 Clemson has secured another spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. Now, the Tigers are looking to keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive.
That starts Saturday against Citadel, an FCS opponent that has lost 15 straight to Clemson dating back to 1931. After that is the annual state tussle with resurgent rival South Carolina, and the Gamecocks are eager to make amends for last year’s humbling 56-7 rout.
“People talk about wanting an expanded playoff,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “We’re in the playoffs. We lose, we’re out.”
It’s a fine line the Tigers (9-1, No. 2 CFP) have walked successfully the past two seasons. They had clinched the ACC Atlantic Division after nine games in 2015, then finished 3-0 down the stretch before heading to the ACC title game. Last season, Clemson needed to win its final ACC game at Wake Forest in week 11 to wrap up another trip to the championship game and followed that up with its rivalry beat down.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said the Tigers upcoming matchup with Coastal Division winner, No. 2 Miami, will be an exciting, challenging contest on Dec. 2. But “both of us have business to take care of before that time comes,” he said.
Scott said Clemson doesn’t plan to let up against the Citadel, which was Southern Conference champions and reached the NCAA playoffs in FCS (former Division I-AA) the past two seasons. But the Bulldogs (5-5) have fallen from contention and play their season finale at Death Valley.
That only makes the opponent more dangerous and gives Clemson more urgency to prepare its very best despite the Tigers coming in a massive favorite. “You can’t cheat the process as a player or a coach, or you put yourself in jeopardy on Saturday,” he said.
Freshman tailback Travis Etienne has felt the pressure ratchet up the past few weeks, based on the increased soreness he felt after the past three weeks with wins against Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and Florida State.
Etienne ran for two touchdowns in the 31-14 victory over the Seminoles and his nine TDs this season are second to quarterback Kelly Bryant’s 10. Etienne believes it’s important for the Tigers to stay just as focused and involved this week as for any ACC game.
“It keeps us honed in on what we have in front of us, so we don’t worry about what’s down the road,” he said.
Fewer teams have been more locked in late in the season the past few years than Clemson, which has gone 14-2 in games that take place in November, December and January. That run has included winning two ACC championships and going 3-1 in the CFP, the lone loss in the 2015 championship game to Alabama. The other defeat was Pitt’s 43-42 stunner on a last second field goal in November 2016.
The Tigers responded with five straight wins on the way to a national title.
“This week will really be about improving ourselves and playing our best game of the season,” Scott said.
There are things Clemson must tighten up if it hopes for another deep, postseason run. Bryant fumbled twice on bad exchanges with tailbacks, including one Florida State recovered on the Clemson 40 trailing 17-14 in the fourth quarter.
Bryant also misconnected on some downfield throws that Clemson had routinely hit with Deshaun Watson. Scott said there were some misfires, but “it’s not all on the quarterback.”
Bryant said he’ll keep working on his technique to get Clemson’s passing game on track. He’s completed 65 percent of his throws this season for 1,924 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Bryant’s proud he’s so far kept the Tigers playing and winning at a high level.
“We’re right where we want to be,” Bryant said, “and where we need to be.”