Clemson has playoff experience, with some exceptions
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson might be making its third trip to the College Football Playoffs, but not all the Tigers have big game experience.
Almost the entire offensive line and key members of the nation’s second best scoring defense started last season when the Tigers (12-1, No. 1 CFP) beat Alabama to win the national championship. But quarterback Kelly Bryant and nearly all the skill players will get their first experience in the playoff pressure cooker Jan. 1 in the Sugar Bowl in a semifinal rematch against the Crimson Tide.
That’s how Clemson coach Dabo Swinney wants it – instead of a senior-laden team finally marching to a title, he wants a mix of experience and youth always in the mix to win a title.
”We’ve never focused on having a great team. We’ve focused on having a great program,” Swinney said.
The only back or wide receiver starting against Alabama (11-1, No. 4 CFP) again is Hunter Renfrow – the guy who caught the winning pass with one second to go in that 35-31 championship victory. He thinks he knows how Bryant will feel, because he felt that way too. But Renfrow also knows he and his more experienced teammates can help.
”I was scared out of my mind, for one. I was super nervous. I sat in my bed thinking, I’m never going to be back here,” Renfrow said, recalling the night before the title game. ”It’s a neat experience. It’s something we’ve been able to do year after year.”
And Bryant said while he hasn’t taken a snap in a playoff game, he was locked in on the sideline last season, calling the plays into quarterback Deshaun Watson.
”When I was the signal caller, I was pretty much playing the game mentally in my head,” the junior said.
But just because the players in the backfield are new, doesn’t mean Clemson isn’t used to this. The Tigers are in the playoffs for the third year in a row. Twelve of their starters in last season’s Alabama game will likely start on New Year’s Day.
Alabama is accustomed to big games too. The Crimson Tide is 27-7 against top 10 teams since the start of the 2008 season, coach Nick Saban’s second year. Saban’s 19 victories against a top-5 team are the most in college football history.
And for the juniors and seniors on both teams, this is the third time they’ve met in the playoffs. Alabama won the national title two years ago with a 45-40 win .
”Both teams are familiar with the other. We know what type of game this is,” Crimson Tide running back Damien Harris said.
This was supposed to be a reloading year for Clemson. The Tigers only have six seniors and were replacing all that offense from Watson receiver Mike Williams and running back Wayne Gallman. But the defense has carried the Tigers through.
And guys like second-team All-American defensive tackle Christian Wilkins are making sure the atmosphere of the playoffs doesn’t overwhelm the newcomers.
”Once you spot that ball after the first kickoff, it’s all just feels like a normal game no matter how high the stakes,” Wilkins said.
For Bryant, this whole past year has been pressure. He had to win the quarterback job in spring practice. He has been consistent, if not spectacular. He has just seven interceptions, and only one of his picks has been against a Top 25 team.
That defense has also kept Bryant from doing too much. He has attempted just 24 passes in fourth quarters and didn’t even play in the final quarter of the Tigers’ 38-3 win over Miami earlier this month in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
”After the ACC, I just had to sit there and soak it up,” Bryant said.
Clemson hopes its experienced lines can help give the Tigers quarterback another new experience to soak in next month.
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