CLEMSON — The Clemson Tigers appear to be peaking at just the right time after notching their 11th win of the season in dominant fashion Saturday night against in-state rival South Carolina.
After stumbling through the parts of the season, the Tigers are liking their chances as bigger games loom on the horizon. On Sunday, Clemson rose to No. 1 in the Associated Press and Amway polls and is expected to be No. 1 when the new College Football Playoff poll comes out Tuesday.
“I do think that we are starting to play our best football, I really do,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s where you want to be as you get into this final stretch here. You want to have confidence. You want to have depth. You want to have good health and you want to feel like you’ve got some rhythm and some momentum. It feels that way.
“I think our guys are confident. I think that we’re as healthy as we have been in a while. We feel that (quarterback) Kelly (Bryant) has a lot of confidence. We’re starting to finish on some plays that we missed on for a couple of weeks there, and defensively we’ve really developed the type of depth that I think you need when you get into some of those bigger games coming down the stretch here.”
The scariest thought for upcoming opponents of the Tigers is that a defense that was already playing at an elite level — may be poised to be even better as the season comes to an end.
While most teams are licking their wounds as a season nears completion, many hoping just to finish — as the Tigers did two years ago in 2015 – Clemson is positioned to be the healthiest it has been all season.
Either by design or by necessity, the Tiger defensive unit has been forced to play a lot of players throughout the season — with as many as five defensive starters (Tre Lamar, Kendall Joseph, Dexter Lawrence, Ryan Carter, Tanner Muse) not playing at various points in the Tigers’ win over Florida State three weeks ago.
"Other than Tre, we finally got our guys back (against South Carolina) and we're probably as healthy as you're going to be during the course of the season,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “That was a major part. When those guys are full speed and the depth in the secondary and we've been able to develop some depth through the course of the season -- both at safety and at corner."
No one doubted that the Clemson defense had the talent to be an elite group this season, but the question was: Would the Tigers’ talent translate to the field?
Entering this week’s ACC Championship Game (8 p.m., ABC) against the Miami Hurricanes at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, the Tigers rank fourth in the nation in scoring defense (13.6 points per game), 14th in rush defense (113.58 yards allowed per game), ninth in pass defense (169.7 yards allowed per game) and sixth in total defense (allowing 283.3 yards per game).
"I'm real proud of them. It takes a lot of courage and toughness to continue to invest in game 12,” Venables said. "I think again it shows a lot of courage, a lot of toughness and the kind of poise that it takes and I think, as a team, we are starting to get into a rhythm and really develop a chemistry on defense.
“There's a lot of trust and a better understanding in game 12, where guys understand what the other guys around them are doing. Some years you have it, some years you don't and I think that this group is really bought into the idea of understanding more than just what they're doing and trying to be a complete defense and a complete player.”
For Venables and the rest of the defensive unit, the fact that the 2017 Tigers appear to be “peaking” at the right time only bolsters confidence that this year could, once again, be a special one in Clemson.
"It couldn't be coming at a better time. Just to really get our rhythm and hit our stride and come together at the end of the year,” Venables said. “The best players, the best units, the best teams I've been around just get better as the year goes on, and you can definitely say that about this group."