It is mid-December, the time of year when the football-playing world looks around and discovers that Clemson is better than fair. Why, in fact, it might even be in position to add yet another season to that championship signage off exit 19B on I-85 that is starting to get a little obnoxious.
Because they play in the ACC, a conference it has turned to mush, the Tigers pretty much went all season overlooked and underappreciated. That’s so very hard to do for a defending national champion, but somehow, Clemson has managed.
Sometimes their coach Dabo Swinney – normally a guy as affable as you’d expect for a guy who chooses to go by Dabo – pretends to be disturbed by this. But, hey, play somebody. Their schedule was two-ply soft (the Tigers’ strength of schedule this season was 61st in the USA Today-Sagarin rankings).
Consequently, nobody knows exactly how good this version of Clemson might be. Based on the fact it’s riding a two-season, 28-game winning streak, there’s a growing suspicion it is pretty danged stout.
We’re about to find out definitively when the Tigers play Ohio State in the other playoff semifinal, the one not in Atlanta, Dec. 28. Finally, some meat on the bone of Clemson’s season.
The Tigers sound ready for a little protein.
“All year, we’ve been kind of taking the back seat, that’s kind of how the season’s gone,” said their quarterback, Trevor Lawrence. “It’s worked out perfectly. We’ve been in the back seat, under the radar. This is the time we get to prove ourselves.”
“We have a close game and everyone thinks we’re not any good, that’s just the way it is,” he added.
Hello, out there, Clemson just may be the team you’d least like to face right now.
Since that close game Lawrence mentioned – a 21-20 win over North Carolina on Sept. 28, by virtue of a stuffed two-point conversion late – no one has come within 31 points of the Tigers. Only one team in college football has a larger average margin of victory than Clemson (35.2 points). That’s next week’s assignment, Ohio State (36.2).
A Clemson defense thought to be ravaged by the 2019 NFL draft lead’s college football in fewest yards (244.7) and points (10.6) per game. The level of competition may have something to do with this, but not everything.
“This team is young, but we’re very mature,” All-American linebacker Isaiah Simmons said. “No one worried about what the media was saying about us, about our weak D-line and things like that. We know what we’ve got here, and we feel like we have all the ingredients.”
“All season it’s been: We’ve played nobody; we have no competition in the ACC. But now it’s: Who’s going to get the No. 1 spot and not have to play against us in the first round?” Simmons said.
The sophomore quarterback from Cartersville – who beat Alabama for a national championship as a freshman – started slowly in 2019. But in his past six games, Lawrence has 20 touchdown passes to zero interceptions.
“Coming into the season we knew we had a lot of weapons,” tackle Tremayne Anchrum, a lad from Powder Springs, said. “We knew we had a lot of potential talent, it was making it work. Last year’s success wan’t going to win this year. It was a journey and figuring it out was the fun part.”
“It’s kind of funny,” safety Tanner Muse said, looking at how Clemson is suddenly chic again, “when you go through a season you have your highs and your lows, but you get to this final four and everybody’s like, oh, they’re a pretty good team.
“We’re like, well, we’ve been a pretty good team, y’all just haven’t taken notice, y’all haven’t cared to notice because you were on all these other wagons.
“We know what we have, we knew what we had in the summertime, but people are just now figuring it out. It’s kind of disappointing, because they’ve missed a lot of good things this season.
“But everybody gets amnesia.”
You see, there is no shortage of confidence or postseason experience for Clemson. These are other attributes that figure to serve the Tigers well now that they’re about to play somebody their own size.
“We don’t require attention. We don’t require hype. We’re fine on our own. We’ll just steadily be great,” Anchrum said.
“We’re built to play our best football at the end of the season,” Lawrence said.
Happy holidays. It is that most special time of year when we pay attention to Clemson once more.
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