CLEMSON, S.C. — The focus is on the finish for No. 4 Clemson.The Tigers (8-1, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) regained their footing and their grip on the ACC Atlantic by rallying for a 38-31 victory over then-No. 20 North Carolina State on Saturday. The push for the finish line starts this week, when Clemson can lock up the division and gain a spot in the ACC title game against struggling Florida State (3-5, 3-4).
"Man, that's what I love about this time of year," Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. "Every week, we're playing for something big."
While the Seminoles may not have had the season many projected, they're a dangerous opponent looking for a big takedown to brighten up a horrible year.
"The guys who've been in this battle before, they know they're going to get the best" from Florida State, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.
Clemson has gotten the best from many programs and mostly come out on top. The win over the Wolfpack was the fourth time this season the Tigers toppled a Top 25 team, following victories over Auburn, Louisville and Virginia Tech earlier in the season.
"We all know what's at stake this week," Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. "We're going to have to play smarter and keep growing this football team."
In Swinney's eyes, that's the goal each and every week, no matter the opponent. He'll preach the same mantra, win or lose, when Clemson faces the Citadel of the Football Championship Subdivision to end its home season on Nov. 18 and against rival South Carolina to close the regular season on Nov. 25.
Clemson has won 16 straight over the Citadel, nine of those coming by shutouts. It has won three straight over the Gamecocks, a series that is perhaps the Palmetto State's most followed sporting event each year.
The Tigers' path did not appear so clear a month ago amid questions about quarterback Kelly Bryant's durability and the team's playoff chances following its lone loss at Syracuse on Oct. 13.
Walking in after a good weekend like... pic.twitter.com/zYtliR1Nf8— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) November 6, 2017
Bryant, the junior replacement for national title-winning quarterback Deshaun Watson, came out of a Wake Forest win with a sprained left ankle, then left the Syracuse game early with a concussion. Bryant returned healthy two weeks ago in beating Georgia Tech, then overcame a poor start at North Carolina State to rally Clemson to the win.
Bryant has accounted for 553 yards and five touchdowns in the past two victories.
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"It's championship time, the championship phase, that part of our journey," Bryant said.
The Clemson-Florida State game had been considered one of the season's premiere matchups when the schedule came out in August — and a probable playoff elimination game. It could still be that for Clemson, which certainly would fall from consideration with a loss to the Seminoles. But Florida State is attempting to salvage a bowl game out of a season marked by the devastating injury to quarterback Deondre Francois and a game canceled due to Hurricane Irma.
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher is hoping to win at Clemson for the second time in five trips since taking over. Fisher said Clemson has raised the bar in the ACC. "Their rise came from their commitment to football," Fisher said. "Dabo's done a great job with their vision."
Bryant believes the Tigers have thrived because of their dedication to not getting hung up on the past, either with success or failure. That's helped him push aside the injury worries and concentrate on keeping Clemson on the winning track.
"We're playing for something," Bryant said. "We're playing for hardware."