GWINN DAVIS MEDIA (copy)

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) options to running back Travis Etienne. The duo starred for the Tigers' national championship team last season and are making another run at the College Football Playoff.  Gwinn Davis/Special to The Post and Courier

CLEMSON — On Jan. 12, coach Dabo Swinney stood at a lectern inside Death Valley at Clemson's national championship celebration and made a bold declaration.

"The 2018 team is the best ever," he said. "Drop the mic. The best ever."

Swinney held on to his microphone, but the comment generated applause from the fans in attendance and the players surrounding him on stage. His sentiment was clear. In defeating Alabama in the national final, the Tigers became the first 15-0 team in NCAA history.

Clemson's ultimate goal this season is to repeat that feat, and so far, it is on its way. Coach Dabo Swinney's team is 11-0 after this past weekend's 52-3 win over Wake Forest.

There's plenty of football left to play, of course. After an open date this weekend, Clemson finishes out the regular season at South Carolina on Nov. 30. Then comes the ACC Championship game in Charlotte on Dec. 7 and a likely College Football Playoff semifinal appearance in late December.

Swinney said he's never had a team play as consistently as this one.

"Last year's team, at this time, was a pretty focused group," Swinney said. "We had two really tough games last year, down to the wire. This team has had one."

Clemson was tested early last season by Texas A&M and Syracuse, but the Tigers survived on both occasions. This season's lone scare was Sept. 28, when Clemson escaped North Carolina with a 21-20 victory. 

The Tigers have won each their six games since then by at least 30 points, snapping a tie with 2013 Florida State for the longest such streak in ACC history. The success has started with the offense, Swinney said.

"Offensively, we're way ahead, we're way ahead of where we were this time last year," he said. "Its not even really close."

Quarterback Trevor Lawrence got off to a somewhat slow start, admitting that he put too much pressure on himself  at times. Expectations were sky-high coming into the season, fueled in part by his spectacular performance as a freshman last year. As a result, he resorted to making some questionable decisions and had eight interceptions through seven games.

He hasn't been picked off in the four games since and has thrown for 13 touchdowns.

"I think (the past month) is the best I've played, holistically," Lawrence said. "Making good decisions, taking care of the ball and even on the plays where most people wouldn't notice what I'm doing, just like the little things I'm doing."

He had deviated from that mindset earlier in the season, he said.

"I was just thinking a little too much about what I needed to do to live up to the expectations," Lawrence said. "It's been good to just be able to play free and not really worry with that stuff."

With the offense humming, the Tigers' defense has been dominant, too. Questions about the team's inexperienced defensive line have slowed as the back seven — which Swinney has referred to as potentially the best he's had — have been virtually impenetrable.

This season, leadership on the defense has started with safeties Tanner Muse and K'Von Wallace. Over the past six games, Clemson has held its opponents to a completion percentage of 50 percent or less.

"All year, this defense had a chip on its shoulder," Muse said. "We lost a lot of great guys last year, and a lot of people didn't think we were going to be worth a dang."

The Tigers certainly have a lot to live up to. Last season's team rolled past Notre Dame in the national semifinal, 30-3, then blew out Alabama, 44-16, in the championship. 

With the postseason right around the corner, Swinney feels good about his team. 

"People spend a lot of time saying we don't play anybody," Swinney said. "They don't really pay attention to how we play."

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland graduate.

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