No. 4 Clemson keeps focus on shot at ACC, national titles
South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp signals to his players during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina defeated Western Carolina 44-31/ (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson won't lose focus now that the fourth-ranked Tigers have achieved their goal of reaching the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. He's aware any misstep the next two weeks could cost them a national championship.
Clemson (10-1; No. 4 College Football Playoff) clinched its spot in the league title game in Orlando, Florida on Dec. 3 with a 35-13 win at Wake Forest last Saturday. The next step toward the national crown comes this weekend against revived rival South Carolina (6-5), which has already doubled its win total from last season with first-year coach Will Muschamp.
Watson is primed for the final, playoff push
Article continues below ...
''Last week, we were focusing on our second goal, that was to win the Atlantic Division,'' Watson said Monday. ''Our third goal is winning a state championship. We'll just take to it this week, take it one day at a time, don't rush it and let everything take care of itself.
''Once the ACC championship comes, we'll take care of that,'' Watson said.
That strategy means focusing on South Carolina, which shouldn't be too hard. A scrappy Gamecocks team in 2015 gave undefeated, No. 1-ranked Clemson all it could handle in 37-32 Tigers' win.
Tailback Wayne Gallman the Tigers can't let things come down to the wire this time, not with the playoffs at stake.
''We can't let go of what we're trying to finish,'' he said.
Watson, the junior Heisman Trophy contender, has faced South Carolina's experienced defense before, but is wary about the tweaks Muschamp has brought to the group.
''Those guys are going to have pride in what they do and prepare very well,'' Watson said. ''Muschamp is a great guy, great coach and they're going to be very confident coming in here. They should be.''
The Tigers will be pretty confident, too, given Watson's history against the Gamecocks.
As a freshman in 2014 he played with a torn ACL in his left knee, yet threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more in 35-17 victory that ended South Carolina's unprecedented five-game win streak in the rivalry. Last year, Watson ran for three scores and passed for a fourth in the Tigers win.
Watson would like to finish things out with a win.
Two weeks ago, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Watson was among several offensive playmakers headed to the NFL after this season. Watson has been coy about the pro talk, wanting to concentrate on his college career instead of where he'll be next year.
''I'll just pray about it and we'll figure it out later on,'' he said.
Muschamp said Watson is a great player, among the best in college football.
''He's a guy that's up for the Heisman, and if they give it to him, they're not making a mistake,'' Muschamp said. ''He's really good. So he's a guy that we've got a lot of respect for.''
Clemson defensive end Christian Wilkins suspected the team would come out flat two weeks back at its lone stumble, a 43-42 home loss to Pitt . Wilkins sensed the energy was down the night before, something he felt returned before the Wake Forest win.
''We got exposed,'' Wilkins said. ''This week, we're a bit more focused and getting the results we want.''
Swinney said his guys have been locked in all season long and doesn't expect that to change now. Checking off last week's divisional goal – the Tigers shared the division with No. 11 Louisville, but advanced to the title game because of their 42-36 win over the Cardinals last month – has the Tigers hungry for more.
''We've got opportunities these next couple of weeks to hit a couple of more'' goals, Swinney said.
If the Tigers hit those benchmarks, they know there's a strong chance they'll land in the playoffs a second straight season.
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org