Clemson's been to the last two national championship games, winning one.
They’ve won the last two ACC titles.
The Tigers have even won 10 games or more the last seven years under head coach Dabo Swinney.
You could say Clemson, after years of being known for choking in big games, has developed the heart of a champion.
In Miami? Well, they’re still looking for it. At this point, in their first title game appearance since joining the ACC in 2004, the Canes would love to continue the quest to reclaim their spot among college football royalty this weekend in Charlotte.
The Hurricanes have already captured their first 10-win season since 2003, but enter the ACC Championship game against Clemson coming off a disappointing loss in the regular season finale at 5-7 Pitt. It got so bad that starting QB Malik Rosier was benched for a series in the fourth quarter after looking completely apathetic and disinterested against the Panthers. Hell, he even admitted as much in the post-game presser.
As such, any goodwill built up over the past few weeks in the Canes ascent to a #2 national ranking was wiped away in the eyes of the world outside South Florida, replaced with feelings of uncertainty and doubt. In other words, Miami is right back to their position of the perennial underdog. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
"I just think we always play with a chip [on our shoulder], we always play hard football," safety Jaquan Johnson said. "Everything else that comes with it, the winning, all the awards and stuff like that, we don't even look into that, we just focus on trying to win every game."
They will oppose a Clemson team against whom Miami owns the all-time series record, 6-4. However, just two seasons ago, the Tigers man-handled and out-classed the Hurricanes by a score of 58-0 in Miami Gardens, a game that signaled the end of the Al Golden era and paved the way for Mark Richt’s return to UM as head coach. The rebuild under Richt is ahead of schedule and has placed Miami squarely in the national conversation. It’s up to the team to prove that the moment won’t be too big for them.
"Coach Richt brought a winning attitude to Miami," Johnson said. "I believe that he truly brought the swagger back, which was showing us that if you work hard and you're consistent and you execute, that you're going to win games. The transformation is quite simple. It's night and day. You could tell by the coaching staff that we have. I had a different coaching staff my freshman year to now my junior year. We are holding ourselves to a higher standard. We're playing the Miami way, so, that's the biggest transformation I see."
On the other side of the aisle, many questioned whether Clemson could still compete for national titles after losing all-world QB Deshaun Watson to the first round of the NFL Draft. Replacing Watson behind center this season was Kelly Bryant, who has slowly grown into his role in the Tigers’ offense. The dual-threat quarterback is aware of the comparisons and expectations that come with following an all-time great, but after winning the job in fall camp, Bryant says he “just took it full stride trying to be the best Kelly Bryant I can be.”
Well, the best Bryant has been pretty good. The signal caller has shown poise in leading Clemson to 11-1, the ACC Atlantic division title, a #1 national ranking, and wins over four ranked teams on the road. Bryant is playing his best football of the season right now and threw for 272 yards, completed 68% of his passes and passed for 2 TD’s last weekend in a blowout victory at #23 South Carolina. But Bryant is most comfortable when he can use his legs to keep teams off balance; he’s rushed for 639 yards and 10 TD’s this year.
"Going into the season, not many picked us to be in the position," Bryant said. "But we knew who we had in the offensive room - the team, and the type of guys we had that were coming back. All of them were ready to step up into the role and embrace it as well.”
Still, the Tigers’ offense is really predicated on the run game. Joining Bryant in the backfield is a RB by committee that is headed by true freshman Travis Etienne, a speedster who has rushed for 720 yards and 7.4 yards per carry. That’s tops for a Tigers team that boasts the #28 rushing offense in the country with 214.7 ypg. His 12 TD’s also broke Clemson’s freshman touchdown record, held by some guy named CJ Spiller. Etienne has done all that splitting carries with Tavien Feaster, who has also chipped in with 637 yards and 6 TD’s.
“Spiller was a pretty good player here and (Etienne) has just kind of quietly broke his freshman touchdown record,” Swinney says. “He just came in and went to work, no expectations. He’s just seized his opportunity. He’s taken advantage of it.”
Miami’s improved secondary will have to deal with a talented trio of Clemson receivers. Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud are blurs with the ball in their hands, and much of Clemson’s passing game is designed to get them the rock in space. The Tigers’ most reliable receiver, though? That’d be Hunter Renfrow, he of the game-winning touchdown catch last season with one second remaining in the national championship game against Alabama. Renfrow is elusive and just finds ways to work himself open, becoming Bryant’s go-to target on third downs.
"[Renfrow]'s just a baller," Swinney said. "Very smart, intelligent, has a great passion for the game, a great preparer. He's become a very polished receiver - he's really grown so much. He's gotten stronger. He was a small guy when he got here, 155 pounds, now he's pushing 185. He's just stronger, has the experience and the confidence to go with it. And he can fly. What really makes him special is his ability to change direction on a dime."
But, for all their skill talent, Clemson’s offense is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the Tigers’ defense that sets them apart and brings them from “pretty good” to “elite”. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables leads a terrifyingly athletic defense loading with NFL prospects and #6 in the nation in yards allowed per game (283.3).
It all starts up front, where the Tigers’ sport three All-ACC first team selections: ends Clelin Ferrell (16 TFL, 8.5 sacks) and Austin Bryant (14.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks), plus talented tackle Christian Wilkins (7 TFL, 4 sacks). It’s Wilkins setting the tone, collapsing the pocket and drawing double teams in the middle, allowing Clemson’s talented ends to fly into the backfield off the edge.
"The tape kind of speaks for itself,” Swinney said about Wilkins. “He's a guy who's flexible, high energy and made All-American honors at defensive end. He's still a work-in-progress. He's still developing his strength. Everything comes easy to him. A great leader. Fun to be around."
The Tigers’ defensive front 7 also includes Butkus Award finalist Dorian O’Daniel, who paces the team with 95 tackles, 5 sacks, and two interception returns for TD’s. Behind them, the Canes will attempt to stretch a secondary currently holding opponents to a 169.7 passing yards per game, good for ninth in the nation. Miami will have to do so without top targets Ahmmon Richards and Chris Herndon; both were lost in the past week to season ending injuries.
Other like Braxton Berrios, Darrell Langham, and Jeff Thomas will have to step up if Miami is going to test the Tigers mettle in the back end. Clemson only allows a 51.9% completion rate and has snatched 12 interceptions on the season, with three coming from South Florida native CB Trayvon Mullen.
“We’re putting together all three phases of the game, coming together as a team and complimenting each other," Mullen said.
But still, it’s always been true: the Canes just play better when they’re the team with lower expectations. Look no further than this season’s match-ups against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame: in both games, Miami was projected to lose, and both times they blew out their competition. Clemson knows that this game will not be handed to them by any stretch of the imagination.
“They’re more than capable of beating us,” Wilkins says. “If we just worry about us - it’s not about them at all - it’s about us and how prepare and practice and are going forward. (Then) we’ll hopefully get the result we want. … If we just are ourselves, just compete we’ll be fine, we’ll win the game.”
"It feels good to have our backs against the wall and I feel like we play better that way," Miami cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph said. "That's been the history of the Hurricanes and the way this city is. We like people to doubt us and say we can't do things. It makes us go in there and work a little harder."