CLEMSON, S.C. — The way Clemson coach Dabo Swinney sees it, the pressure is the same as it’s been all season.
No. 3 Clemson plays No. 19 Virginia Tech on Saturday night in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, with the Tigers looking for their second straight league title.
A victory most likely would return the Tigers (11-1; No. 4 College Football Playoff) to the playoffs. But the demands to play like winners, Swinney said, are always there.
“It was at stake at Auburn, it was at stake versus Troy, it was at stake at Georgia Tech,” he said. Tuesday. “It’s at stake every single week if you’re worried about all this stuff.”
He understands that beating the Hokies (9-3) puts the Tigers in line for the national title. The greater concern is the weekly challenge of preparation.
“There’s not a single goal there that says go to the playoff . There’s not a goal that says win the national championship,” Swinney said. “We don’t control that. We could go undefeated and somebody could say, ‘No, we don’t like you all.’”
That shouldn’t happen this time. The one-loss Tigers have been solidly in the top four of the playoff rankings and should not fall from that spot when the latest poll comes out Tuesday night.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, also a Gainesville High graduate, says the team learned from last year’s run to the national championship game, a 45-40 loss to Alabama. Now there is a focused mindset, with distractions kept to a minimum.
“Everyone is just out there competing and trying to get better,” Watson said. “This is the perfect time for us to start peaking at our best and being our best.”
Clemson has dealt with meeting expectations all year long. Tagged as a super team coming into the season and led by Watson — third in last year’s Heisman Trophy voting — the Tigers rarely hit all the benchmarks analysts and fans wanted to see.
There were six-point wins to start the season over Auburn and Troy, games many thought the Tigers would win easily.
There was the North Carolina State escape in which a missed Wolfpack field goal at the end of regulation gave Clemson the chance for a 24-17 overtime win. And, of course, there’s Clemson’s lone regular-season loss of the past two seasons when Pitt kicker Chris Blewitt hit a 48-yard field goal in the final seconds for the Panthers’ 43-42 victory.
Clemson defensive end Christian Wilkins called the loss a wake-up call, one his team answered with strong wins over Wake Forest (35-13) and South Carolina (56-7) to enter into the championship game on a roll.
“We know what it’s going to take,” he said. “We know what we can do.”
So do the Hokies, whose season has already shown they picked the right time and right man in Justin Fuente to succeed Frank Beamer. Fuente made several moves to keep Beamer’s presence in the program, perhaps none bigger than retaining longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Fuente had Beamer speak to the team before the Virginia game last weekend, a 52-10 rout by the Hokies. Fuente said the players have responded well.
“You always worry about the most about the older guys because change is always harder on people that are more set in their ways, and to our kids’ credit, they never looked back,” Fuente said.
Neither have the Tigers, pushing aside any regrets over last year’s playoff run to get back to the doorstep of another.
“We’re riding the momentum in our last games,” center Jay Guillermo said. “Hopefully, we have three games.”