“They’ve got an opportunity to make some history,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Most notably, a victory would make the Tigers’ senior class the first group in Atlantic Coast Conference history to win 51 games in a four-year span.
“This is the fifth senior class in a row that has one-upped the previous senior class,” Swinney said. “They take a lot of pride in that. They have really taken ownership of what they’re leaving behind, more so than probably any group I’ve had. And it’s important to them how they’re impacting the young players on this team.”
Swinney’s blending of veteran savvy and freshman talent has pushed the undefeated and No. 2-ranked Tigers (9-0, 7-0 ACC) to yet another ACC Championship Game and the cusp of a fourth consecutive berth into the College Football Playoff.
Led by a stingy defense that ranks among the Top 10 nationally in nine statistical categories and a youthful offense still discovering its capabilities, Clemson appears to be peaking at the right time, having dispatched its last five opponents by a cumulative 267-43 margin.
The Tigers opened as a 27-point favorite against Duke, a team that Clemson hasn’t faced since 2012 due to the ACC’s divisional setup.
“We haven’t played them in years, but I’ve kept up with them,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, whose team is 7-3, 3-3. “When you look at this team on tape, whether it be offense or defense or kicking — this may be the most complete team that I’ve seen in years, maybe ever. I’ve prepared for a lot of great football teams over 30-plus years, but this team is complete.”
Both Clemson and Duke feature standout quarterbacks in freshman Trevor Lawrence and junior Daniel Jones, respectively.
Lawrence, who is making just the sixth start of his career, appears to be improving by the week. He leads the ACC in touchdown passes with 19 and in passing efficiency. Over the past four games, he’s completed 65 percent of his passes for 976 yards and eight touchdowns.
“You’re not going to stop him,” Cutcliffe said. “You just have to try to minimize the amount of damage a player like him can cause.”
Jones, who also has eight touchdown passes in his last four games, is coming off a career-best game in the Blue Devils’ 42-35 victory against North Carolina. Jones completed 31 of 54 passes for 361 yards while also rushing for 186 yards — a single-game record for a Duke quarterback.
“I’m incredibly impressed with their quarterback,” Swinney said. “This guy is as good as there is out there. He has tons of arm strength, he’s big and accurate and can fly. We watch the tape and he’s just pulling away from people. No doubt we’re going to have our hands full with him.”
Clemson, on the other hand, is far from a one-man show offensively. Each of the Tigers’ top four running backs has had at least one 100-yard game this season and the team has had three backs rush for 100 yards or more in the same game twice this season.
Leading the assault has been sophomore Travis Etienne, who has scored 15 rushing touchdowns and averaged 8.5 yards per carry.
Led by sophomore Tee Higgins and his seven scores, Clemson has four wide receivers with more than 25 receptions each and 14 different receivers have caught at least one pass.
“Weapons everywhere,” Cutcliffe said. “An outstanding football team. It’ll be challenging playing down there on a Saturday night, but I hope everybody on our team is looking forward to the challenge. What an exciting atmosphere, what an exciting opportunity.”
Swinney is impressed by the Blue Devils, who own four road victories this season, including a 21-7 win at Big Ten West Division champion Northwestern.
“Duke has had a heck of a year, for sure,” Swinney said. “David Cutcliffe is as good of a coach as there is in the country. I have so much respect for who he is. He’s definitely one of the good guys in this profession. And what he’s done at Duke is unbelievable — the consistency he’s established there.”
Duke has clinched its fifth winning season in the last six years. That represents the most successful stretch for the program since five winning seasons in six seasons between 1960 and 1965.