CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and the third-ranked Tigers won their division. Now, they’re ready for more.
Clemson (11-1; No. 4 CFP) moves on face No. 19 Virginia Tech (9-3) in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game Saturday night. One more victory and they’re off to the College Football Playoff. A loss would most likely land them on the outside as a two-loss team.
Watson also gets a chance to make one last case he deserves to be among this year’s Heisman finalists.
“They’re champions on their side just like we are,” Watson said. “It’s not going to be easy.”
Both teams enter the title game off impressive wins over state rivals.
Watson tied his career high of six touchdowns in a 56-7 win over South Carolina, Clemson’s biggest margin of victory in the series since 1900.
Virginia Tech running back Sam Rogers gained a career high 105 yards and two touchdowns in the Hokies’ 52-10 win over Virginia, its 13th straight win in the rivalry.
“I think this game was a statement game, to tell Clemson that we’re coming,” Virginia Tech defense end Ken Ekanem said.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney interviewed then TCU offensive coordinator in Justin Fuente in 2011 for the Tigers open OC job. While Swinney hired current SMU coach Chad Morris, he and Fuente remained friendly through the Virginia Tech coach’s stop as Memphis head coach.
“Really impressed with him and his personality,” Fuente said about Swinney. “Really enjoyed our conversation.”
This week, the Hokies must handle Clemson’s potent offense and Watson, who has thrown for 1,129 yards and 10 touchdowns the past three weeks as the junior’s college career — Watson is leaving for the NFL after this season — is ending.
“There’s still a lot of opportunity left for us,” Swinney said. “We’re going to empty our tank this week and get ready for a tough Virginia Tech team.”
Things to watch for at the ACC championship game:
RENEWED RIVALS: Clemson and Virginia Tech have played 33 times, but none since 2012 when the Tigers won their third straight in the series with a 38-17 victory. These teams also met for the 2011 ACC title with Clemson taking a 38-10 win to break a 20-year league championship drought. Much has changed since those meetings, most notably the Hokies head coach. Justin Fuente took over this year for the program’s iconic leader Frank Beamer.
ROAD TRIP: The teams will have a bit longer to travel to play for a title this year after the ACC withdrew the championship game from its home in Charlotte, North Carolina, amid backlash over the state’s law limiting protections for LGBT people . The short, three-month turnaround might lead to a few more empty seats than planned. The Clemson-Virginia Tech final in 2011 in Charlotte drew 73,675 people and last year’s Tigers-North Carolina game brought in 74,514. The last non-Charlotte game in 2009 in Tampa, Florida between Clemson and Georgia Tech attracted 44,897 people.
LAMAR-FREE WEEKEND: Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson gets to make a closing Heisman Trophy argument without a response from the favorite, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. Watson has upped his game the past two weeks and one more stellar performance might turn a one-time runaway race into a nail-biter for the sport’s biggest individual prize.
FIRST YEAR COACHES: First-year head coaches, like Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente, don’t have a strong history at the ACC championship. Boston College’s Jeff Jagodzinski brought the Eagles there his first year in 2007, losing to Virginia Tech 30-16. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney played for a title his first full season on the job in 2009 only to lose 39-34 to Georgia Tech. The next year, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher took his team to the championship game his first season in 2010, falling to the Hokies 44-33.
QUARTERBACK BATTLE: The Hokies won’t cede anything to Clemson and Watson, not with a record-setter like Jarod Evans leading their offense. Evans had two TD passes in the win over Virginia for a school record 26 on the season. He’s also been responsible for 34 touchdowns this season, also a record for a program that’s featured such dynamic quarterbacks as Michael Vick, Logan Thomas and Tyrod Taylor.
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