CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson right tackle Sean Pollard had no doubt the Tigers would keep up their play and high profile despite the loss of several critical pieces from last season’s national championship puzzle.
The second-ranked Tigers completed perhaps a more dominating month than any in recent memory, dispatching three top-15 opponents in four weeks for a third consecutive 5-0 start with many of last year’s stars gone.
“This team’s hungry and ready to get back” to the national title game, Pollard said Monday. “We enjoy being on top and if it doesn’t motivate you to get back, I don’t know what will. There’s a drive on this team that’s special.”
Clemson (5-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) tries to continue its perfect start Saturday against Wake Forest (4-1, 1-1). The Tigers are 22-point favorites and brimming with confidence after dismantling powerful Virginia Tech at home, 31-17, last weekend.
They had plenty of questions coming into the season. Quarterback Deshaun Watson, tailback Wayne Gallman and receiver Mike Williams, the focal points of the Tigers’ national title run, all went to the NFL.
Defensive lineman Carlos Watkins, the team’s sacks leader, and linebacker Ben Boulware, its leading tackler, also left, giving Clemson doubters and detractors lots of reasons to discount another championship chase.
Instead, the Tigers appear more versatile and dominant on both sides of the ball this season.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant, while not passing like Watson, has opponents concerned about his running and escapability in leading the offense. Bryant has accounted for nine touchdowns, seven of those on the ground.
Young runners Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne — Clemson’s “T-n-T Backfield” — have been dynamic and effective in splitting duties for workhorse Gallman the past two years. Feaster stung Tech early last week with his 60-yard TD catch from Bryant.
On defense, Clemson is fourth nationally in fewest points allowed per game and seventh in fewest yards per game.
“We always thought we could do the job,” Clemson cornerback Mark Fields said.
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said his team is disappointed after a 26-19 loss at home to Florida State and will have to rebound quickly at Clemson. “The challenge next week does not get any easier,” he said.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott wasn’t worried about his new players living up to last year’s group. He was curious to see how Bryant would handle the controls of an offense that Watson made look so flawless for much of the previous two seasons.
Bryant has rarely let up in his five games as starter, Elliott said, growing in his decision-making and technique. The coach said that’s evident in his play over the past four weeks, which included victories over those top-15 opponents, Auburn, Louisville and Tech.
Bryant and the offense looked choppy in a 14-6 win against Auburn, then took flight a week later with 613 yards of offense in a 47-21 victory at Louisville. The Tigers and Bryant shook off a sluggish effort two weeks ago against Boston College to open a 17-3 lead at Virginia Tech and never let the Hokies get back in it.
“We knew September was going to be a big month for us,” Bryant said. “We knew we had to bring it.”
Now that it’s been brought, the Tigers believe there’s another gear their players can reach.
Elliott said people compare this group with last year’s team. The more apt comparison is with 2015, when Watson, Williams, Gallman and others at the core of the title run were untested players looking to improve. This season’s group is young, hungry and eager to improve, Elliott said.
“I think that this still is a young group, we’re still building that chemistry in practice and every single game we play,” he said. “The good thing is we’ve been challenged early in the season and we know what kind of character we have. But there’s a lot of things we can improve upon.”