CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) - Clemson faces perhaps its most difficult challenge now that the top-ranked Tigers have successfully navigated the toughest games out of the way, avoiding missteps on the way to the College Football Playoffs.
The top-ranked Tigers (9-0, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference; No. 1 CFP) made a strong statement with their 23-13 victory over Florida State in their much anticipated showdown last Saturday. The victory clinched a berth in the ACC championship game, but between now and the title contest, Clemson faces three opponents where the only statements the Tigers can make to the playoff selection committee are bad.
Clemson plays struggling Syracuse (3-6, 1-4) on Saturday, but even a video game-type blowout victory and the Tigers would have only done what's expected. Lose, and it's likely bye-bye national title hopes.
''Right now, it is what it is,'' Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson said. ''We just have to go back to work and keep doing what we're doing.''
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney has drilled the one-game-season approach into his players all year. Swinney's reasoning is sound: If you lose to lesser opponents, it does not matter what you've done against the big boys.
Clemson's used that blueprint to win 12 consecutive games dating to last season and rise to No. 1 for the first time since it captured its lone national championship in 1981.
Co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott understands too well the pitfalls of losing focus.
He was freshman receiver for the Tigers in 2000 when the team's 8-0 start dissolved into a 1-3 finish. Elliott was Clemson's first-year running backs coach in 2011 and was sickened when that team lost three of its final four regular-season games after also opening 8-0.
Elliott said senior leaders like offensive linemen Eric Mac Lain and Ryan Norton, along with running back Zac Brooks and receiver Charone Peake set the tone for younger players by keeping focused.
''We've been in similar situations where we're having success and we didn't handle the success right,'' Elliott said. ''So they're constantly reminded of that.''
On paper, Syracuse does not look like much of challenge for high-powered Tigers.
The Orange have given up at least 41 points in four of their past five losses. They allowed 34 straight points in a 41-17 defeat to Louisville last weekend for their sixth consecutive loss. Plus, Syracuse has lost to Clemson each of the past two seasons while getting held to a combined 20 points.
''Obviously, we've got to win more games to improve and do the things that we want to do and reach our goals, but it's the way you approach the difficult times that makes you a good character young man,'' Orange coach Scott Shafer said. ''That's our focus right now.''
Clemson is chasing the biggest prize in the game, albeit one step at a time.
Backup guard Maverick Morris, who subbed for injured starter Tyrone Crowder against Florida State, broke into a grin when asked about the series of milestones the team achieved in the past week, including its first win over the perennial ACC champion Seminoles in four years.
''It's nice,'' he said. ''But we don't go around bragging, `We're No. 1.'''
At least not yet.
After Syracuse, the Tigers close their home schedule - they've won 15 straight at Death Valley - against Wake Forest (3-6) before ending at the rival Gamecocks, who have lost two of three games since iconic coach Steve Spurrier's resignation in mid-October.
Watson also faces the distraction of a rising Heisman Trophy profile. After entering the season as a contender, Watson's sluggish early play dropped from the top tier of Heisman chasers. But his play over the past month (he's accounted for 13 touchdowns and nearly 1,500 yards the past four games) has lifted him back to the running.
''I am?'' Watson asked playfully.
The outside noise won't bother the Tigers much, said senior defensive tackle D.J. Reader.
''We've been waiting a long time for this,'' he said. ''We're excited for what we have in front of us.''