This was supposed to be a bit of a rebuilding year for Clemson.
With Deshaun Watson and three of his favorite targets gone, the Tigers were expected to lean on their defense and have a solid season in 2017, but not many people had Clemson returning to the College Football Playoff.
Yet here the Tigers are, ranked No. 1 entering the bowl season after dominating Miami 38-3 in the ACC championship game.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Clemson is in this position again, despite not being picked to win the ACC Atlantic in the preseason.
The Tigers have finished higher in the final rankings of the season than in the preseason seven consecutive years and are poised to do so again in 2017. Clemson was ranked No. 5 in the Coaches Poll and AP Poll before the year.
“I think it says a lot about our guys, just the culture, the leadership of the guys that came before,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “I think anybody can have a great team, but to really have the consistency that we’ve had… it says a lot about the culture that coach (Dabo) Swinney’s worked hard to create.”
Clemson’s streak of exceeding expectations began in 2011 when the Tigers were unranked entering the year and finished No. 22 in both polls with a 10-4 record.
Since then Clemson has been ranked No. 14, No. 8, No. 16, No. 12 and No. 2 in the preseason through 2016. The Tigers finished No. 9, No. 7, No. 15, No. 2 and No. 1 in the final Coaches Poll during that time.
“We’ve got guys that appreciate the opportunity, and they don’t take it for granted,” linebacker Kendall Joseph said. “You’ve got guys that are five-star recruits and four-star recruits that are as hungry as they come. All that just combined, that’s what you see. Those third and fourth stringers could start at a lot of places, and that’s where we’re at at Clemson.”
This is a new-look team from last year’s squad that featured Watson, Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Jordan Leggett and Wayne Gallman, but Kelly Bryant, Travis Etienne, Tavien Feaster, Ray-Ray McCloud and others have stepped up and put Clemson in a position to repeat as national champions.
The Tigers will face No. 4 seed Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 and with a victory would face the winner of Oklahoma and Georgia for the national title.
Bryant had never started a game in his college career before this season, but the Tigers are undefeated in games that he has started and finished, and he has made big plays time and time again no matter the stage or environment.
“We feel like we have a winning formula, and this is the normal for our guys,” Scott said. “That’s what we talked about. These big games, it seems like it’s just a normal situation. Every other week we’re in a normal big game. Our guys just go out and continue to play well, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”