Dabo Swinney

Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney addresses the media on Tuesday ahead of Saturday night's ACC Championship Game.

T&D CORRESPONDENT ZACH LENTZ

CLEMSON — The last time the No.1 Clemson Tigers (11-1, 7-1 ACC) and No. 7 Miami Hurricanes (11-1, 7-1 ACC) met on the football field was more than two years ago — Oct. 24, 2015 to be exact.

On that day, the Tigers handed the Hurricanes the worst loss in their 90-year football history and put an end to the Al Golden era in Miami.

But when the two schools meet for the first time since that day this coming Saturday (8:14 p.m., ABC) in the ACC Championship Game, Clemson has no illusions that this Miami team is a far different animal than the one from two years ago.

“Any time you have a bad outing, you want to do better the next time. But I mean, that game has nothing to do with this game. We're a different team. They're a different team,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday. “There might be a few players here or there that might have played in that game, but that was just a bad day for Miami. ...

“It has nothing to do with this game. I mean, it really doesn't. It's all about this team and their team and who can execute, do things you've got to do to win Saturday night.”

The Hurricane team the Tigers will face Saturday is a far cry from the one that finished that regular season with an 8-5 record. This year’s team finished the regular season with 11 victories, including back-to-back wins over Virginia Tech and Notre Dame.

While the Hurricanes have garnered the attention of the nation for their “Turnover Chain,” it is the overall play the defense that has the caught the eyes of the Tiger coaching staff.

Led by defensive end Jaquan Johnson with 81 tackles, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, the Hurricane defense features a bevy of playmakers that has Swinney seeing double.

"Defensively they are really, really, really good. They look like Clemson,” Swinney said. “It looks like our practice tape. They've got some cats up front, a bunch of pros. They are really athletic, big, heavy-handed, well-coached. Their linebackers can fly. They've got their usual speed on the back end. They are a complete defense. They lead the nation in turnover margin and sacks. They're second in tackles for loss. These are two great defenses.”

The turnaround in only two seasons for the Hurricanes is, in large part, due to the energy brought to the program by second-year head coach Mark Richt -- who returned to his alma mater following a 15-year stint as head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs.

"I don't think there's any question that the move to Miami was a great move for him,” Swinney said. “All he has ever done at UGA was won. He was a great coach there and he's a great coach now, a great fit for Miami. He has been able to really pull it together down there. He has reunited Miami, their fan base, their former players, that program. It's been good to see. I think it is great for our league. He's done all that in his second year. He's done a great job.

"I've always really respected Mark Richt. He is a great man, a great coach and a guy who truly cares about the players. He always has. He's one of the great men in this business.”

With both the Tigers and the Hurricanes squarely in the race for a berth in College Football Playoff, the stakes have never been higher in the 12-year history of the ACC Championship Game.

"We have a big challenge this week with Miami. What a year they've had,” Swinney said. “This is a really good football team. This is the way it should be. It's been earned on the field by both teams. Now we've got four quarters to decide who will stake claim to the ACC title. It's a great matchup.

Should be a great crowd. It's good to be back in Charlotte. It's a sellout. GameDay will be there. Four quarters, man. We're four quarters away from having a chance to go back to the playoff."

Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.

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