No. 3 Clemson not looking past Virginia Tech in ACC final
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) There's one more hurdle in third-ranked Clemson's quest to get back to the College Football Playoff - Saturday night's Atlantic Coast Conference championship game against No. 19 Virginia Tech.
Win, and the Tigers (11-1, No. 3 CFP) are a lock for a berth in the national semifinals for the second straight season.
Lose, and the dream of resolving unfinished business in January is over for Deshaun Watson and Co.
''It's all about the finish now,'' coach Dabo Swinney said Friday. ''The headline everybody is going to remember is the last one.''
For the record, Swinney was talking about his team's ACC aspirations.
In reality, anything short of making it back to next month's national title game - and winning - will be a huge disappointment for a team still drawing motivation from a six-point loss to Alabama in last season's final.
Underdog Virginia Tech (9-3, No. 23 CFP) is intent on not only showing up , but making the most of its first appearance in the ACC championship game since 2011.
The Hokies, who last won the conference title in six years ago, reject the notion that all the pressure is on Clemson.
''That's not where we're at mentally. We know we have a tremendous challenge. We know we're playing a well -coached, talented football team. But we didn't do all this work just to get here. We still have work left to do,'' Hokies coach Justin Fuente said.
''Our kids are prepared that way. And we know we have to play extremely well in order to get it close there at the end. But I've stayed away from (saying) `you've got nothing to lose' because I don't believe that,'' Fuente, the ACC coach of the year, added. ''I think we've got a great opportunity, and we've got a great group of kids that have worked incredibly hard for this opportunity.''
Five things to know about the first ACC title matchup between Clemson and Virginia Tech since 2010:
ASK ME LATER: Swinney was asked how he feels about the prospect of second-ranked Ohio State receiving a spot in the CFP without playing in Saturday's Big Ten championship game, possibly over the winner of that game or another league champion. ''Ask me that on Sunday. Right now, it's about beating Virginia Tech. That's really all that matters to me. I could care less about Ohio State or any of the rest of them. We've got to focus on what we're trying to do,'' the Clemson coach said.
''When it's over on Sunday, I think it would be a very clear picture. I think the committee will get it right,'' Swinney added. ''But for us, we just want to win and be there.''
HELLO, JUMBO: When Clemson absolutely needs to convert a short-yardage situation, it calls in the heavy offensive artillery - namely, 310-pound defensive end Christian Wilkins and 340-pound defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. The two typically pave the way for a Tiger runner like Wayne Gallman to get through the stacked up front and into the end zone. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said the pair of defensive starters are athletic and adept at moving their feet to get in front of bull-rushing defenders. Wilkins is so agile, in fact, the Tigers have used him as an offensive weapon. He caught a fake punt pass for a first down in the College Football Playoff win over Oklahoma last season. This year, Wilkins caught a TD pass in Clemson's 30-24 win over Troy in September. He also converted a first-down on a 10-yard run on a fake punt against North Carolina State.
BUCKY FACTOR: The Hokies always have a mismatch in the passing game with 6-foot-7 Bucky Hodges, who has played more wide receiver than tight end this year. Hodges is third on the Hokies with 42 receptions, but tied for the lead with seven catches for touchdowns. He's too big for cornerbacks and safeties to cover one-on-one, too fast for most linebackers and a great attention-taker to free WRs Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips to make things happen.
WAIT FOR IT: Clemson receiver Mike Williams leads the Tigers with 79 catches for 1,114 yards and 10 touchdowns. He's surpassed 1,000 yards in receiving yards for the second time in three full seasons, yet was not in the mix for the Biletnikoff Award given to college football's best receiver. Don't worry too much, Swinney told Williams, he'll hear his name called first when it matters most at the NFL draft. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Williams is expected to be a first-round selection at next spring's draft. ''I think he's the most complete guy that we've had,''Swinney said of a list that includes first-round picks in Deandre Hopkins (2013) and Sammy Watkins (2014).
RUSH JOB: Clemson's Watson has hardly been touched this season, and Virginia Tech's pass rush has not been especially effective, but defensive coordinator Bud Foster is one of the best in the country and will surely try to find ways to allow DE Ken Ekanem, DT Woody Baron and LB Tremaine Edmunds to disrupt Watson and try to force him into mistakes. Watson has thrown 14 interceptions, and turnovers in a game like this can be decisive.
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina; Hank Kurz in Blacksburg, Virginia; and Terrance Harris in Orlando contributed to this report.
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