Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney leads his team out on the field. Photo by Jon SooHoo/UPI | License Photo
Clemson capped its regular season by rolling to a 56-7 victory against in-state rival South Carolina, but the Tigers' season-long quest continues Saturday when they face Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division champion Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game.
"Yeah, 11-1 is a great season," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "Now for us it's about moving on and seeing if we can win the ACC Championship. This time next week I hope I'm in front of you guys, celebrating an ACC title.
"That's what we set out to do. Our goal is to win this conference. We've got a great opportunity to do that."
Despite recently clinching its sixth consecutive season with 10 or more victories, Clemson is bidding to win back-to-back ACC titles for the first time since the late 1980s.
"We've got to prove we're the best in this league, and we've got four quarters to do that," Swinney said.
Ironically, Swinney almost hired Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente several years ago to be his offensive coordinator at Clemson. Fuente, who was at TCU at the time, was one of two assistants that Swinney brought in to interview for the job, which ultimately went to Chad Morris.
But Swinney and Fuente have remained in contact since and harbor a mutual respect.
"I knew when they hired him it wouldn't take long for him to get them back to this point," Swinney said. "I'm certainly happy for Justin and the job he's done in his first year.
"He's a great guy and a heck of a football coach. He's going to do a fantastic job at Virginia Tech."
The Hokies, who were 7-6 in 2015 in the final of Frank Beamer's 29 seasons, will carry a 9-3 record into the ACC Championship Game.
"There's a lot on the line," Swinney said. "But there are some other goals we're shooting for."
A spot in the College Football Playoff is foremost among them. After coming up just short against Alabama in the National Championship Game last January, the Tigers would love to make amends, and they're likely to get that chance should they wear the ACC crown; the Tigers are ranked fourth in the latest CFP rankings.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Deshaun Watson is Clemson's barometer; if he has a good game, which he does far more often than not, the Tigers are a good bet to emerge victorious. Watson has been on a roll of late, completing 74 percent of his passes for 1,129 yards 10 touchdowns in Clemson's last three games. "I've never been around a guy like this guy. The moment's never too big for him," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
--RB Wayne Gallman followed up his season-best 161-yard outing against Wake Forest two weeks ago with 112 yards against South Carolina on Nov. 26 and appears to be hitting his typical late-season stride. Gallman had six 100-yard games in Clemson's final eight games of last season and is in better shape physically as a junior.
--LB Ben Boulware, who was named a first-team All-ACC player on Nov. 28, never plays at less than full tilt, nor does he mince words. "We knew they weren't in our league and we knew they couldn't play with us at any position," he said after the Tigers' 56-7 win against South Carolina. Boulware backs up his talk; he leads the team with 103 tackles.
--WR Artavis Scott typically plays in the shadow of Mike Williams, but he certainly ranks as Clemson's "Mr. Consistency." Scott, a junior who's the roommate of quarterback Deshaun Watson, has caught at least one pass in 35 consecutive games -- one shy of the school record. He's also coming off an eight-catch, 77-yard, one-touchdown performance against South Carolina and could loom large against a Virginia Tech team that will be intent on stopping Williams.