Led by head coach Dabo Swinney, Clemson has danced its way into the College Football Playoff with a 13-0 record and has held the No. 1 ranking in each and every CFP poll this year. It turns out the master of the Whip and Nae-Nae knows a thing or two about football.
Swinney and his Tigers have done everything that championship teams are supposed to do: win road games, beat higher ranked opponents and avoid falling in trap games. All of which has enabled Clemson to win the ACC crown and earn an Orange Bowl date with No. 4 Oklahoma (11-1) in the CFP semifinals on Thursday.
There’s a lot to like about this year’s Tigers, and here are five reasons why their season won’t end before the ball drops.
1: Deshaun Watson
The undisputed leader on the No. 1 team in the country, Deshaun Watson is far from your typical sophomore. In his first full season as the starting quarterback for the Tigers, Watson was named the ACC Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year while finishing third in the Heisman voting.
The 6-2, 210-pound AP All-America first-teamer has thrown for an ACC-best 3,512 yards and ranks third in the nation in completion percentage (69.5), while his 887 rushing yards are the third-most of any QB in the country.
Gaudy statistics aside, Watson is everything you want in a quarterback: Cool, calm, collective and clutch. Whether it’s with his arm or his feet, Watson will always find a way to win.
2: Shaq Lawson
It’s imperative that Clemson makes Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, uncomfortable, and that’s where defensive end Shaq Lawson comes in.
The 6-3, 225-pound junior is a pass-rusher extraordinaire who has racked up 9.5 sacks this season and leads the nation with 22.5 tackles for a loss. Lawson, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and first-team all-American, has already declared for the NFL Draft and will no doubt look to improve his stock with a big game against the Sooners.
3: Dabo Swinney
He’s won just about every coach of the year award, and for good reason. Swinney is the straw that stirs Clemson’s drink. Not only does the Tigers’ seventh-year head coach have a brilliant football mind, but he excels at fostering team chemistry. For example: How many other coaches rented out an amusement park for their team in the midst of a national championship run?
While all the dancing may seem silly and over the top at times, it serves a purpose. His players love it and rally around him, and recruits think it’s cool. He is the rare coach that can pull off being a bit goofy without losing his status as the supreme authority figure in the locker room.
4: Offensive balance
Quick: name Clemson’s weakness on offense? Good luck because there are none. Watson is arguably the best QB in the nation. Wide receiver Artavis Scott (84 rec., 805 yards, 5 TDs) is an all-ACC first-teamer, along with RB Wayne Gallman (1,332 yards, 10 TDs), TE Jordan Leggett (34 rec., 442 yards, 7 TDs) and offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain.
Oklahoma may be able to take away a player or an aspect of Clemson’s offense at times, but there are simply too many weapons for the Sooners’ defense to contain.
5: Brent Venables
The adage is that defense beats offense. Clemson is hoping that holds true come the Orange Bowl. Under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, the 2015 Broyles Award winner, Oklahoma ranks third in the FBS with 45.8 points per game.
With stars like Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Mayfield (3,389 yards, 38 TDs) and all-Big 12 first-team RB Samaje Perine (1,291 yards, 15 TDS), slowing down the Sooners’ offense is a tall task. However, Venables, a former Oklahoma defensive coordinator, is adept at handling challenges.
Entering the year, Venables was charged with having to figure out how to replace superstar DE Vic Beasley and a slew of NFL draft picks that helped the Tigers lead the nation in total defense (260.8 ypg), tackles for a loss (131), first downs allowed (185) and third down conversion percentage (27.4) in 2014.
Venables was up for the task.
Powered by ACC Defensive Player of the Year Lawson, and a secondary that features the all-ACC first-team tandem of corner Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse, the Tigers’ defense has been stellar all season.
Clemson heads into its CFP semifinal matchup ranked second in the nation in third-down defense (.249), seventh in total defense (295.7 ypg), 12th in sacks (38) and 18th in scoring defense (20.2 ppg) and will be perhaps the biggest reason why Clemson advances to the national title game.