CLEMSON — The statement that “the next game is the biggest one of the season” is one that Clemson fans have heard ever since head coach Dabo Swinney became the Tigers’ head coach in 2008.
This week, however, that phrase takes on a whole new meaning as the No.5 Tigers (7-1, 5-1 ACC) travel to Raleigh to take on the No. 19 N.C. State Wolfpack (6-2, 4-0 ACC) in a game that will likely decide the ACC Atlantic Division.
"It's the biggest game of the year. It is. If we hadn't have won last week, this game wouldn't be as big,” Swinney said. “It just kind of ramps up as you go through November. As a team, you have 12 opportunities. Right now, we can still be 11-1. You have to win eight first and that's what we're trying to do. If you lose, most likely you're not going to win the division.
“You want to win it every single year and stay in the hunt as long as you can. The season won't be over regardless. If we're not good enough to win, you tip your hat, shake their hand and go forward to try to be as good as you can. We don't sit around worrying about what if. We just want a great Tuesday practice today."
As the calendar now turns to November, the Tigers are entering the “Championship Phase” of the season — the time of the year when championships are won and lost.
With a berth in the ACC Championship and a trip to the College Football Playoff on the line each and every week from here on out, the Tigers believe that there is one key to having a “November to remember.”
“Prepare with purpose. When you do that you have attention to details,” Swinney said. “Bring effort, pay attention to alignment, eyes, footwork, everything. It's your commitment. You can't get outworked. They want it as bad as we do. It comes down to execution. Both teams have played eight games, so you're not going to trick each other. It'll be just one team representing this division in the championship game. That's what it's all about. You hope to be in this situation in November."
Last year, Clemson escaped with a 20-17 overtime victory over the Wolfpack in Death Valley, as N.C. State placekicker Kyle Bambard missed a 33-yard field goal on the last play of regulation that would have won the game for the Wolfpack.
The Tigers scored on a Deshaun Watson pass to Artavis Scott on their first possession of overtime and the game came to an end as cornerback Marcus Edmond intercepted quarterback Ryan Finley on N.C. State’s first play of overtime.
And the lessons learned from last year’s close call will undoubtedly serve as a reminder for this Clemson Tiger team.
“We have to play well and earn it, especially when you're playing good teams,” Swinney said. “You won't go on the road and beat N.C. State if you don't play well. You can't win at Louisville or Virginia Tech if you don't play well. It's not any different this week. Last year was a tough, hard-fought game.
“(N.C. State is) just a good team all the way around. I think we’ve got a good team. Should be a heck of a game in Raleigh.”
Spence holds onto kicking job… for now:
The job of placekicker for the Tigers came down to warmups Saturday night, as the Swinney decided that Alex Spence would retain the job after facing competition from Christian Groomes and Drew Costa.
Even after converting on his three extra-point attempts and knocking through a 29-yard field goal in the pouring rain Saturday night, Swinney made it clear that the competition is still very much open.
“They (managers) actually brought me the pregame stats. All of them except one was 6-for-6. We started over and ran him out there,” Swinney said. “We gave them all the same kicks. He came out on top. He didn't win the job for life. He won it for the week. That's where we are. It's a week-to-week basis. Kinda like me - lose a couple of games and they'll run you off.
"It was good to see him go have some success. He just needs to build some consistency in that. Either it goes through the pipes or it doesn't. It's a tough position to play. I was very happy for him. Hopefully, that's a good boost of momentum for him. We'll keep charting, though. Everyday. Every week. We'll keep creating that pressure in practice the best we can."