No. 2 Clemson plays home finale against Citadel (Nov 18, 2017)

Heading into its final home game of the season, Clemson is 9-1 and ranked No. 2, putting the Tigers in line for its third consecutive College Football Playoff berth.

But this year’s players won their coach over a long time ago.

“I knew coming in that it was going to be a different year and different type of team, with a lot of new faces,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “There have been a lot of challenges, but this team has been a lot of fun and whatever situation they’ve been in, they’ve somehow found a way to respond.

“And I love to see people respond in this world where there’s so much criticism and analyzing of everything.”

He’ll get no such criticism from Brent Thompson, head coach of Saturday’s opponent, The Citadel (5-5).

“I don’t need to tell anyone that they’re very, very good,” Thompson said. “For us, a lot of it will come back to offense and trying to get first downs and move the ball and do what we can to keep our defense off the field.”

Clemson still has plenty at stake, and the Tigers are taking nothing for granted against a .500 Football Championship Subdivision opponent.

The tiny military school in Charleston, S.C., knocked off South Carolina 23-22 just two seasons ago, and Swinney will be quick to share that information with his players.

“We’d better remind them — I’ll make darn sure they know,” Swinney said. “And we won’t prepare (for The Citadel) any different than we did for Florida State.”

Last week, the Tigers clinched a third consecutive berth in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game, where they will face undefeated and No. 3 Miami on Dec. 2 in Charlotte, N.C.

The Citadel, a Southern Conference member coming off a 10-2 season a year ago, runs the triple-option offense and ranks among the national leaders in FCS with a ground game that averages 308.6 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry.

The Bulldogs have four players with at least 479 yards rushing, and running back Grant Drakeford is averaging an eye-popping 9.9 yards per attempt.

But Clemson is among the national leaders in rushing defense, allowing only 112.7 yards per game.

“They’ve got a great defensive line,” Thompson said. “And they’ve played Georgia Tech, so they have a great understanding of what it takes to defend the option.

“They’ve got their linebackers keyed into the right spots. They recover as well as anybody that you’ll see, so you’re not going to get them out of position too often.”

Despite long odds, Thompson said he wants his team to embrace the opportunity.

“I love it,” he said. “I love it for our players, I love it for our fans, I love it for the experience of it. It’ll be an awesome game for our younger players to witness and see and be a part of.”

Clemson has used a rejuvenated running game that includes quarterback Kelly Bryant to do much of their damage offensively this season. The Tigers are averaging 221 yards per game on the ground — a 42-yard improvement over last year’s national championship team.

By any measure, Bryant has done an impressive job of filling the shoes of Deshaun Watson.

“I wear a size 16, so I fill big shoes every day,” Bryant said, laughing.

Bryant has taken the pressure in stride and come through in a big way, rushing for 608 yards and 10 touchdowns and passing for 1,924 yards and seven scores. He’s 9-1 as a starter, and will become just the third first-year starter in program history to win 10 games in his first season if the Tigers top The Citadel.

“Offensively, their quarterback is probably one of the best players in the country,” Thompson said. “We’ve got to do all we can do to try to keep him in front of us.”

Clemson, which will finish its regular season with a game at rival South Carolina on Nov. 25, can secure a school-record seventh consecutive season with 10 or more victories by beating the Bulldogs. It also would give the Tigers an 80-14 record over the last seven years; only Alabama has a better record over that period.

And all this in a “rebuilding” year.

“We’re embracing where we are in this journey. This was supposed to be a transition year,” said Swinney, whose team has only six scholarship seniors. “But these guys didn’t get the memo.”

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