CLEMSON, South Carolina — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has steadily preached "one game at a time" all year long. Now, with the season's end in sight, Swinney wants his top-ranked Tigers to embrace the challenges ahead of them now that the ultimate goal is within reach.
"The biggest thing for us, we've got 18 days left to punch a ticket to the College Football Playoffs," Swinney said. "Let's get dialed in"
The home stretch for No. 1 Clemson (10-0, 7-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) starts Saturday against struggling Wake Forest (3-7, 1-5), which has lost its last four games. The Tigers might not be challenged for a couple of weeks — they face 3-7 South Carolina in the regular-season finale — until the ACC championship game. There Clemson will most likely play Coastal Division front runner North Carolina, and Swinney does not want his team to grow complacent with what they've accomplished so far.
Clemson left guard Eric Mac Lain acknowledged Swinney's message was more wide-ranging than the tunnel-vision view the team's had since last season ended.
"I think we took a brief moment yesterday to lift our heads up and look at the finish line just to realize we are right there," Mac Lain said. "But I think our mentality now is to keep our head down and sprint through it. We can't have any kind of let up."
The Tigers haven't so far in the rise to No. 1.
However, things have not gone as smoothly as some had hoped after a 58-0 demolition of Miami on Oct. 24. Clemson's defense gave up too many yards and points for coordinator Brent Venables' liking in a 56-41 victory at North Carolina State on Halloween and a 37-27 win at Syracuse last Saturday. While winning is the ultimate goal, Clemson must get back to the focus it had earlier in the season when it was among the nation's top five in stopping opponents.
"I just expect them to play well, play with effort and toughness and discipline," Venables said. "That's it."
Wake Forest might be the perfect remedy. The Demon Deacons are next-to-last in ACC total offense and scoring.
"We've got some things we have to correct," linebacker B.J. Goodson said. "We'll go to work and get them fixed."
Swinney said his current outlook is not a change from earlier in the season. He wants players to get a glimpse of how close they are to the ultimate goal and not waste a moment of preparation. One hiccup, the coach said, and the Tigers playoff plans are left in the committee's hands — or scuttled altogether.
"We can't waste a meeting, we can't waste a practice," he said. "We have to have a sense of urgency to the nth degree."
The players have taken that to heart.
Swinney said he's barely seen a difference in their approach since the season began and said there's been no increase in worry or bravado among the Tigers after reaching No. 1.
"They're not any different than they were a couple of weeks ago," Swinney said. "We're going to be judged by how we finish, so let's not waste that."
Offensive lineman Ryan Norton, a fifth-year senior who was part of Clemson's last ACC title team in 2011, said the players have taken the accolades in stride and have not let themselves get caught up in the outside of excitement of the team's first 10-0 start since the 1981 national championship season.
"In the locker room people aren't running around going, 'We're No. 1,' and stuff like that," Norton said. "It hasn't hit the team yet that we're No. 1 in the nation."
That's just how Swinney likes it.