Swinney pregame Georgia Tech

Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney leads the pregame Tiger Walk at Death Valley before the season-opening 52-14 win against Georgia Tech on August 29.

CLEMSON – The Atlantic Division champion Clemson Tigers (12-0, 8-0 in ACC) take to the field against the Coastal Division champion Virginia Cavaliers (9-3, 6-2 in ACC) in the 2019 ACC Championship Game on Saturday (7:30 p.m., ABC).

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"First of all, just like to congratulate Virginia and Coach Mendenhall on an awesome season," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said this week. "Just really an incredible journey that they've been on since coach got there. I mean, it's been fun to watch. You could see this coming, as far as them building a championship program.

"Just being around Bronco in meetings and things like that, I think he's an outstanding coach, unbelievable human being, has just done a wonderful job there at Virginia."

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With a win, Clemson can become the first team in an active FBS conference to win five consecutive outright conference championships since Alabama accomplished the feat from 1971-75.

Also, a win would earn Clemson a likely spot in the College Football Playoff when announced on Sunday.

'We're excited about it, about competing with them, representing the Atlantic in the ACC Championship Game up in Charlotte," Swinney said. "It's always been a wonderful experience. Any time we've had a chance to go up to Charlotte, they do a great job there. We appreciate that. Super proud of our team.

"This is a team that I think last year at the end of the year, going into spring, lots of questions on our team. Not sure there were a lot of people that felt like we would be at this point. Maybe we could compete for our league, but not be a 12-0 team."

However, before the Tigers can think about a possible flight to Phoenix or Atlanta - sites of the two playoff semifinal games - they must first get past a dangerous Cavalier team.

"I have such appreciation for them, because you can see their culture, their heart, their will to win, their passion, their togetherness, and their belief on tape," Swinney said about Virginia. "It just kind of oozes out. And that's a credit to Bronco and his staff, they've done an awesome job. Because those are the hardest things to have and that's why they are where they are.

"If you get those things right, then you have a chance for bigger and better things as you go. And they've got that right. Really excited about competing against a team like that."

The ACC title would be Clemson's sixth under Swinney. With the win, he would tie Frank Howard’s school record for ACC titles and match Howard and Duke’s Bill Murray for the second-most in ACC history. Swinney would pull two shy of Howard's total number of conference championships at Clemson (eight), including Southern Conference titles in 1940 and 1948.

"To be 12-0 for the fourth time in our school history, just the development that I've seen, the commitment, the leadership, the work ethic day in and day out by our staff and players, has just been awesome to be a part of," Swinney said. "These guys love to work. They love the challenge of getting ready every single week.

"So for us, this is the next goal, to get to Charlotte and have an opportunity to compete and win the ACC. That's what our focus is on."

Clemson's top-ranked scoring defense (10.1 points per game) has allowed only three points in each of its last two contests and has held opponents out of the end zone in each of the last nine quarters.

Clemson will attempt to hold a third consecutive opponent to single-digit points for the first time since the first three games of the 2000 season. If Clemson were to hold Virginia to three or fewer points, it would be Clemson's first streak allowing three or fewer points in three straight games since 1981.

It is that stingy defense the Tigers will lean on Saturday night, as they look to capture another ACC Championship.

"I mean, this is a defense that's playing the most consistent football of any group we've had," Swinney said. "They're giving up 10 points a game. They've just been so consistent. Offensively, well, this is the most prolific offense we've had, scoring 45 a game. I mean, we're rushing the ball for 250-something a game. The other big thing, this is the best turnover margin team I've had. We're plus 11 in the turnover margin. We're getting a lot of takeaways, we're doing a good job of taking care of the ball.

"I think we've had seven games in a row now we've won the margin, which is the first time since I've been a head coach to have that consistency. I just think we're not giving up big plays. Last year, we were about 70th in plays of 20 yards or more. This year we're third or fourth in the country, plays of 20 yards or more. We just don't give a lot of big plays up."

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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. He also serves as a co-host of Solid Orange, seen at 11 p.m. Wednesdays on WACH FOX 57 in Columbia. He is editor of www.ClemsonMaven.io


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