No. 2 Clemson settles into familiar ACC title game routine
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson safety Denzel Johnson is very familiar with the routine leading up to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. Like most of his Tiger teammates, he’s been through it before.
No. 2 Clemson (12-0, CFP No. 2) is seeking its fourth consecutive ACC crown and the Atlantic Division champ has a big edge in experience over first-time Coastal Division winner Pittsburgh (7-5) on Saturday night. Johnson, a redshirt junior, said players know exactly the effort needed at drills and meetings this week to be primed to play for another ACC title.
There’s a difference, Johnson said, between well-prepared and comfortable.
“As far as comfort, not at all, we’re never satisfied,” Johnson said. “We’re just treating this like any other game, just the next game.”
A game in which the Tigers have feasted on first-time opponents.
The Panthers are the fourth different Coastal team Clemson has faced since its ACC title streak began in 2015. The Tigers topped North Carolina that year, Virginia Tech in 2016 and Miami a year ago.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott often doesn’t have to tell players what’s next as the week progresses.
“They know what to expect out of each other,” he said.
The consistency in routine is something Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has built into his program since he got the fulltime job after the 2008 season. Players can’t perform at their best each game if they think some games are bigger than others, Swinney believes. So he’s kept the focus on the Tigers and not on opponent, the start time or how high the stakes might be.
All of that, though, is magnified for Clemson in this one.
A victory over Pitt would make Clemson the ACC’s first ever with four consecutive championship game victories. It would also propel them back into the College Football Playoff for a fourth straight year and give them a chance at their second national title since 2016.
“I think experience is definitely the best teacher than you can have for sure,” Swinney said. “We have a very veteran team. We got a lot of great leaders. We got a lot of guys, a bunch of guys on this team that have won three conference championships. That certainly doesn’t hurt.”
Elliott thinks players appreciate knowing how the week’s preparation is going to unfold. He’s also confident that if adversity arises during the title game, Clemson’s veterans can call on how the team has handled it in past games.
“I think the guys have confidence in the routine,” Elliott said. “Obviously, they’ve got to go out and execute four quarters and play at a high level. But I think they understand what our week’s going to look like.”
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi may be one of the few in his program to have been through a conference championship game experience. He was Michigan State’s defensive coordinator when the Spartans played and won the Big Ten title in 2011 and 2013. He accepts the Panthers can’t match Clemson’s past ACC experiences.
“Clemson has obviously been there before. This will be nothing new to them,” Narduzzi said. “I think it’s going to be important for our football team to obviously stay focused and locked into why we’re there, what our job is.”
A big part of that job is slowing down Clemson’s surging offense. The Tigers gained 744 yards in a 56-35 win over South Carolina this past Saturday, the seventh straight game where they’ve won by 20 or more points. The ACC honored left tackle Mitch Hyatt with the Jacobs Blocking Trophy given to the top offensive lineman. Three Tigers were honored in the league’s weekly awards, receiver Tee Higgins, center Justin Falcinelli and rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Clemson running back Adam Choice is a fifth-year player who was part of the team in 2014 before its run of ACC championship success. He’ll spend part of this week reminding younger teammates not to take playing for an ACC crown for granted.
“We know what it’s like not to be in the ACC championship game,” he said. “It’s definitely not something to be taken lightly.”