No. 1 Clemson seeking next step to football playoff against South Carolina
CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney promises his top-ranked Tigers won't lose focus, not this week with so much still left to accomplish against rival South Carolina.
Yes, a second straight win after South Carolina's unprecedented run of five straight victories from 2009-13 would be wonderful, Swinney said. But staying on course and primed for the College Football Playoff is job one for the country's No. 1 team.
"All we've gotten done so far is in the rearview mirror," Swinney said Tuesday. "It's what's next."
Most outsiders see the struggling Gamecocks (3-8) as a mere speedbump on the road before the ACC title game Dec. 5 and the Tigers finishing among the four playoff participants. The Gamecocks lost 23-22 to FCS opponent Citadel last week.
"It just kind of makes you chuckle when we found out about the Citadel," Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett said.
Still, Leggett insists the Tigers will approach the rivalry game with the same work ethic as they've shown all year. "Mistakes now are not what we need," he said.
Clemson has made few missteps this season. Nitpickers in the Tigers' first 11-0 season since its 1981 national title team will point to a lackluster 20-17 win at Louisville in September or the defense giving up 41 points at North Carolina State on Halloween and 27 points at Syracuse two weeks later as evidence Clemson can get beaten.
The Tigers, though, have rolled on offense — they've had seven straight games with 500 or more yards — behind sublime sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. He was named the ACC's offensive back of the week for a fourth time this season after throwing for 343 yards and three touchdowns in a 33-13 victory over Wake Forest last week.
Watson is 15-1 all-time as Clemson's starter, including a 35-17 win over South Carolina last year where he played with a brace to support a partially torn ACL in his left knee. Watson needed offseason surgery and has steadily moved up the Heisman Trophy contender lists as the Tigers keep winning.
Center Jay Guillermo thinks South Carolina will regroup, saving its best for its final game of the season.
"They are going to approach this game harder than any other game," he said. "This is a rivalry game and they are a team that can beat you."
Things have devolved for the Gamecocks the past month as interim coach Shawn Elliott tries to hold together a team coach Steve Spurrier left in mid-October. Spurrier has not attended any of the Gamecocks' home contests and is not expected to be at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday.
South Carolina has lost four straight and four of five with Elliott in charge, including the distressing defeat to Citadel. It was the Gamecocks first lower division loss since losing to Citadel in 1990.
"We faced the facts, exactly what had happened, what's been going on and what we got to do to move forward," Elliott said. "Our mood of our football team is very good if you can imagine that to happen."
Elliott said the players showed spirit at practice Monday. The team attended the Tiger Burn, a yearly South Carolina student tradition where a large tiger is built and burned.
Elliott said coaches allowed players to meet by themselves and get some things off their chests. When the Gamecocks came out of that meeting, Elliott saw a different, more determined look in their eyes.
"You can kind of look at an individual and tell if they've got it or not," he said. "I think everyone got it."
Clemson players want to get it once more in the regular season before chasing the ACC and national titles.
"I do believe our guys recognize what we have in front of us," Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report from Columbia, South Carolina