CLEMSON, S.C. — With an easy smile and a stress-free attitude, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said his team is right where it expected to be and ready for the next challenge.
The third-ranked Tigers (12-1, No. 2 College Football Playoff) returned to campus this week to start practice for its national semifinal matchup with No. 2 Ohio State (11-1; No. 2 CFP) at the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Eve.If Swinney is concerned about Clemson's mindset or the pressure of trying to reach the national title game again after last year's runner-up finish to Alabama, he didn't show it Tuesday as he stood in the program's festively decorated team room.
"At the end of day, we're where we wanted to be," Swinney said. "We wanted to be in the final four, that's where we are. We've got a shot to get back to the championship."
Oh, Swinney said there will be lots of time to zero in on the Buckeyes' stellar defense and knack for making the decisive play on offense when it counts most. Right now, he'll focus getting the Tigers' football legs back under them before leaving for Arizona on Dec. 26.
For Swinney, that means re-committing to football fundamentals that may have gotten sloppy in Clemson's weekly grind to the Atlantic Coast Conference title, which the Tigers captured earlier this month with a 42-35 win over Virginia Tech . He'll have the Tigers best players go against each other like the do during August scrimmages, something teams don't always have the luxury of doing much once the regular-season starts.
Clemson's staff has been locked onto the Buckeyes since re-gathering this past weekend and Swinney said nearly all preparations for the Fiesta Bowl will be complete before the team leaves campus the day after Christmas. He's been on other staffs where coaches have left key parts of game plans under wraps until the handful of bowl-site workouts — which Swinney believes can lead to problematic results.
"It's really not the best environment" to get major work done that late, he said. "Game week is about details, it's polishing."
The Tigers have players who've been polished to a lustrous shine in recent seasons.
Swinney believes his experienced group will approach the game the way they have each week of the regular season and as they did before last year's title game. Eight Clemson offensive starters played in the 45-40 loss to Alabama last January. The Tigers have remained in the moment and have not let themselves peek too far ahead as this season unfolded.
"It's about just be great where your feet are," Swinney said.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables said the week is about reminding players to go fast, but with discipline.
"We try and give our guys a refresher course," he said.Ben Boulware, who won the Jack Lambert Award last week as college football's top linebacker, said the Tigers haven't forgotten the sick feeling in the locker room after the Alabama loss in the same stadium that they'll play Ohio State. Boulware said he and his teammates have rallied around leaving that stadium as winners this time.
"The hunger has been there from day one, been there since January," he said. "It will continue to be there until the last game."
Returning to practice was also a return to normalcy for Clemson's Deshaun Watson, who won the Davey O'Brien and Johnny Unitas awards this month. However, he finished behind Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson for the Heisman Trophy and ACC player of the year.
On Tuesday, Watson also was runner-up to Jackson in The Associated Press' college football Player of the Year voting.
Swinney said his quarterback has put the award season behind him and is preparing to leave Clemson with a national championship.
"He said it best himself, he just wants to win. That stuff's so subjective," the coach said of the awards. "But the trophy they give you after the last game of the season is played, there ain't no vote on that one. That one's earned."
This article was written by Pete Iacobelli from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.