CLEMSON — Emotions will be high Saturday when the third-ranked Clemson Tigers (9-1 record, 7-1 ACC) host The Citadel Bulldogs (5-5 record) in a 12:20 p.m. game on ACC Network.
The Tigers will not only be celebrating Military Appreciation Day — they will also be recognizing a senior class of players that are one win away from becoming the winningest senior class in program history.
“We've got the fewest (scholarship) seniors on this team since World War II,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We know we're going to get every ounce of everyone's best every week. I am so proud of this group. If the season ended today, I'd be so pleased with them and their effort. They've played so hard.
"They haven't always played smart, but they've played hard, together and with tremendous effort."
Swinney struggled to grasp the fact that these upperclasmen are going to be playing their final game at Clemson.
"Hard to believe it's the last game in Death Valley; it's Senior Day," he said. "That's always an emotional time. There is some finality to it. These guys dream about playing in this kind of venue.
"To see them have the opportunity to achieve their dream is special. They're not here forever. It goes by quickly. Our seniors are 26-1 at home. What a career they've had.”
If the Tigers are going to break the record this week they will do so facing a Citadel team that, under second-year head coach Brent Thompson, has been in a rebuilding mode following a 10-2 season and a trip to the second-round of the FCS playoffs last year.
While this season has not been what the Bulldogs would have hoped for, with four of five losses coming against teams ranked in the FCS top 25, Swinney understands that anytime you play a triple-option team, it is a challenge.
“The Citadel — Coach Thompson — has done a good job down there,” Swinney said. “They’re 5-5 right now, it’s a difficult team to prepare for. They’re the triple-option. They’ve got their own little nuances and personality with it that they bring to the table.
"They’re a challenge. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, if they’re running the triple-option it’s a challenge, because it’s not something that you see every single week.”
Helping the Tigers to prepare for the triple-option attack they will face Saturday is the fact that have already faced Georgia Tech, a team that also runs the triple-option. The Tigers held the Yellow Jackets to 133 yards on the ground in a 24-10 victory.
“We do have good experience,” Swinney said. “We’ve obviously played Georgia Tech and hopefully that will help us a little bit. They (The Citadel) throw it a little more; they throw it about 13 times a game, and Georgia Tech only threw it about seven or eight times a game. They’re kind of the air-raid triple-option, if you will. That puts a little bit more strain on it.
"Brent (Venables) and the boys, they hate these weeks.”
This week will not be The Citadel’s first trip to Clemson this season, as the Bulldogs made the trip to the upstate after Hurricane Irma forced the evacuation of The Citadel’s campus in early September.
One of the days that the campus was closed, the Bulldogs came to Clemson and practiced in Clemson’s Poe Indoor Football Facility, courtesy of Swinney — which may have been a first for a team that was on the schedule later in the season.
“We just put the laptop (referring to the postgame laptop-gate scandal from N.C. State) out there," Swinney joked. "No, that was a low blow. I actually never saw them. I knew they were coming that day. I got an awesome note from their AD. I got a note from Brent and one other person.
"They were appreciative and gracious. Woody McCorvey handled all that. I'm glad we were able to help them."
Following the best game of his career, Swinney commented on the journey that former Orangeburg-Wilkinson standout defensive lineman Albert Huggins has been on, since arriving at Clemson in January of 2015.
While it has not always been the easiest time of growing into a productive college player, Swinney believes that the light has finally come on for Huggins.
"It's been a slow process. It's been a matter of him being consistent,” Swinney said. “When he first got here, it was him learning a new position. I wish we could have red-shirted him. Having the mindset that it takes, maturity, that's important. That's what it has taken for him - consistency.
"One day he looks like the guy you know he can be and the next day he looks like he hasn't played football. Very inconsistent with energy and his effort. Those things matter. You're not entitled. Just the maturation has been the biggest thing for him."
Things looked better than ever for Huggins heading into this season.
"We saw some things this past spring we liked, things like him committed to becoming a great player," Swinney said. "He's got everything he needs to be great. He's got all the tools. No question, he can do it. His teammates really challenged him in a big way. Dexter, Christian, they challenged him and told him he'd have to step up and play.
"I was so pleased with him, really encouraged."