With only losing opponents left, No. 1 Clemson maintains its focus

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney celebrates after his team’s 23-17 victory over Florida State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. AP Photo/Richard Shiro

CLEMSON — The cover of Sports Illustrated. The Buffalo Bills’ head coach wearing a Clemson helmet to his own press conference. The vice president touting the Tigers.

“It’s great to get this attention,” senior offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain said. “We just have to fully understand — lose one game, and it’s all gone.”

The cliché “nameless, faceless opponent” is so 2013. This year’s mantra has been the “one-week season” battle cry as coaches implore players to stay the course each week, regardless of the opponent.

“These are probably the biggest distractions Clemson’s ever had to deal with in a season (besides) negative things,” Mac Lain said. “These same people telling you you’re the greatest in the world are going to be the first to tell you you’re terrible. It’s interesting to see how this team reacts.”

Why is the nation so high on the No. 1 Tigers? It’s easy to see Clemson (9-0, 6-0 in the ACC) sticking around on the national championship radar for a while. While the nation’s other top teams — Alabama, Ohio State, Baylor and Notre Dame — still have major challenges on their schedules, Clemson’s toughest games (on paper) are in the past.

The Tigers’ next three games are against teams with 3-6 records. Clemson is at Syracuse on Saturday, hosts Wake Forest on Nov. 21, and plays at South Carolina on Nov. 28. The Tigers are a four-touchdown favorite against the Orange, will probably be a similar favorite against the Demon Deacons and should be almost universally picked to beat the Gamecocks.

“Regardless of whether we’re the underdogs or people put us on top, we’re going to have the same mentality and work the same, prepare the same way and play Clemson ball,” sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson said. “We continue to do what we do. Coach (Dabo) Swinney does a great job of preparing us and making sure if we prepare the same way each week, we won’t have any problems.”

The Tigers have already punched their ticket to the ACC Championship game, meaning all that’s technically on the line for Clemson against Syracuse and Wake Forest is preserving its undefeated record and No. 1 ranking.

Then comes South Carolina, which has seen improved play under interim coach Shawn Elliott since Steve Spurrier abruptly retired Oct. 13. If USC upsets Florida and defeats The Citadel, the Gamecocks would be playing not just for rivalry redemption, but for bowl eligibility.

After that, a trip to Charlotte to take on the ACC Coastal Division champion. The current front-runner is No. 17 North Carolina (8-1), which has not lost since the opener to South Carolina.

“There’s definitely a lot of people patting us on the back, telling us how great we’re doing,” freshman defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. “But we’re hungry. Our environment is everyone realizing the job’s not done. There’s a lot more we can accomplish.”

Amidst Watson’s appearance on the cover of SI, Rex Ryan giving the Tigers props and multiple national features on Dabo Swinney, practice rolls on in Clemson as the Tigers strive to stay unbeaten.

“They’re handling it well. They’re not satisfied, and they understand now is not that time to pat yourself on the back,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “We want to be (No. 1) after the ACC championship game on Dec. 5. That’s when it’s going to matter.”

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