CLEMSON — No long stretches of games. More depth on defense. All in all, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney believes he has a fresher, steadier group heading into this year’s national championship game with No. 1 Alabama.
Swinney said his Tigers were impacted in 2015 by 10 consecutive weeks of grueling football from late September until the Atlantic Coast Conference title game in early December. On top of that, Swinney’s defense was chock full of front line stars, yet had little experienced depth behind them.
That’s not the case this time around, at least not in Swinney’s eyes when No. 3 Clemson (13-1) looks to take down the Crimson Tide (14-0) on Monday night in Tampa, Florida.
“I feel like we have more juice” than when the Tigers faced Alabama a season ago, Swinney said Tuesday.
Clemson’s certainly playing with more confidence.
The Tigers turned an expected tight game with No. 2 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl into a 31-0 runaway , the third shutout of the season for a defense that lost six starters with college eligibility left to the NFL draft.
“We were top heavy, especially defensively. We were one deep on the line and that took a toll on us,” Swinney said. “The biggest difference in our team was we kind of had more competitive depth. We were going to have more guys functionally ready to play winning football.”
That’s apparent on the defensive line where Clemson has lost seven starters over the last two years, yet is permitting just 123 yards rushing per game this season.
Younger players like defensive end Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Albert Huggins spent last season finding their way and getting little playing time behind dominant starters Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, both high round NFL draft picks who were one-two nationally in tackles for loss.
The work paid off this season when Ferrell led a strong group that knew it couldn’t be the ones who let Clemson’s tradition defensive excellence — the Tigers have finished in the top 10 nationally on defense each of the past three seasons — falter with them.
The line was boosted by five-star freshman Dexter Lawrence, a nimble 340-pounder who controls the middle and allows the rest of Clemson’s defenders to harass quarterbacks and take down tailbacks. Defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, a senior, led the Tigers with 10 1-2 sacks after getting just 3 1-2 his first three seasons.
“We couldn’t let the moment get too big for us,” said Ferrell, who had three tackles behind the line in the Ohio State rout.
Next up is a much bigger moment against Alabama, which outlasted the Tigers 45-40 in last year’s national championship game.
Clemson’s defense gave up just 138 yards rushing to Alabama last year, but Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry ran for three scores including a 50-yard TD for the Crimson Tide’s opening score.
More crushing were the 53 and 51 yard touchdown passes from Jake Coker to tight end O.J. Howard that stung Clemson’s secondary, a unit that had three of last year’s four starters selected in the 2016 NFL draft.
Swinney said the names might not be as familiar to fans, but this year’s players are just as effective. They are also infused with the belief they deserve to match up with Alabama for the game’s top prize.
“The biggest thing from last year is that they know they belong,” Swinney said. “They know they’re good enough.”