CLEMSON, S.C. — If you’re looking for a team with big-game experience, Clemson is one of them.
The top-ranked Tigers (11-1, No. 3 College Football Playoff) are 39-3, including 13-1 against ranked opponents the past three seasons. Next up is No. 7 Miami (10-1, No. 2 CFP) for the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship and a spot in the national title playoff chase on the line.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is grateful his players understand what it takes to succeed in the biggest games. He believes, though, that this year’s challenges have molded the current team more than past triumphs.
“We’ve had guys that have started in an ACC championship game and I think that’s important,” Swinney said Tuesday. “But I think it’s more what their experience is with this team this year.”
And they’ve been plenty of marquee games this season to toughen most of the newcomers, particularly on offense, with the Tigers on this latest run.
Clemson had a September that forged their championship dreams, defeating No. 13 Auburn (14-6), No. 14 Louisville (47-21) and No. 12 Virginia Tech (31-17), the latter two on the road. “That’s where this team’s confidence comes from,” Swinney said.
Still, players who gone through it know how to prepare and compete when the stakes are the highest, linebacker Dorian O’Daniel said.
“As far as been there, done that, we’ve been there and we know what it takes,” he said.
That was particularly critical for a team that lost 11 starters from its national title season in 2016, seven of those coming on offense and including first-round NFL draft picks in quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver Mike Williams.
Slowly, the team gelled into a unit that defied expectations, Swinney said. A couple of the newcomers earned spots on all-ACC teams: Center Justin Falcinelli, replacing mainstay Jay Guillermo this fall, was picked first team while freshman tailback Travis Etienne, who leads Clemson 720 yards and 12 touchdowns, made the third team.
The biggest question about Clemson centered on quarterback Kelly Bryant, who saw limited time the last two seasons as backup to Watson and second-string Nick Schuessler. Bryant struggled last spring at times in his earliest attempts to adjust to being the guy, Swinney said.
Once fall camp came around, there was no doubt that Bryant would take over the offense. He’s completed 66 percent of his throws for 2,426 yards, 12 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Bryant’s also rushed for 639 yards and 10 TDs.
Bryant felt his belief in his ability to lead the Tigers grew after each successful performance.
“I’m feeling a confidence there and I’m feeling confident on this team,” Bryant said. “The coaches believed in me as the season progressed to get the job done.”
Miami coach Mark Richt accepts that Clemson has the clear edge in recent postseason experience. He believes, however, the Hurricanes have had several crucial games this season that have given them moxie enough to compete with the defending national champs.
Richt said the Hurricanes’ 41-8 home win over Notre Dame was a raucous atmosphere that his team handled well.
“That was about as big as it gets,” Richt said. “It was good to have that experience.”
Clemson cornerback Ryan Carter is happy for any edge the Tigers might bring to the title game — and experience is a major one. Many first-timers might get overwhelmed with the atmosphere and environment on Saturday night. Clemson will not.
“That’s big for us,” Carter said.