ACC MD Notes: Clemson not resting on its laurels

Sports Xchange

July 13, 2017 at 3:30 pm.

Jul 13, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers defensive tackle Christian Wilkins speaks to the media during the ACC Kickoff at the Westin Charlotte. Photo Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Jul 13, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers defensive tackle Christian Wilkins speaks to the media during the ACC Kickoff at the Westin Charlotte. Photo Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Clemson has enjoyed the time as national champion, but the Tigers have been back to work for quite some time in trying to maintain their lofty status.

With Thursday’s session at the Atlantic Coast Conference Kickoff, it was clear that there will be challenges for the Tigers.

“We didn’t just luck up on winning a national champion,” defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “It’s not an easy path. You have to show (the newcomers) that hard work is the only way to go.”

The depth and likely strength of the ACC’s Atlantic Division means the Tigers will have to be at full throttle to keep pace.

“Every single week you better come to play,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

Clemson has put together back-to-back 14-1 seasons, though the 2015 campaign ended with a loss in the national championship game. A year later, the conquest of Alabama capped the best six-year span in school history for the Tigers.

“We weren’t perfect even though we did win a national championship,” Wilkins said.

The Tigers have six consecutive seasons with at least 10 victories.

Finding a replacement at quarterback for Deshaun Watson is of utmost importance for Clemson, which also is without departed running back Wayne Gallman and receiver Mike Williams.

There’s no shortage of candidates to fill prominent roles.

“We’ve got players who want to prove themselves,” offensive guard Tyrone Crowder said. “That’s why they come here — to be that guy.”

Before the Tigers can be consumed with repeating as national champions, they have to make it out of the ACC’s Atlantic Division, which includes a Florida State team that might be picked as the division favorite when that poll is released next week.

Plus, there’s Louisville with a dynamic quarterback (Lamar Jackson), a veteran North Carolina State team and an improving Wake Forest program among those in the way.

“We want to be a great league,” Swinney said. “That competitive balance in our division has grown tighter and tighter. This division is tough.”

ON TO THE NEXT THING: ACC commissioner John Swofford predictably pointed out the strength of the conference, noting a significant uptick in recent years.

The ACC has two of the past four national champions.

“You know you don’t live too long on last year’s laurels,” Swofford said. “You can’t live in the past in college athletics. You move ahead.”

For Swofford, improvements across the league have been most notable. He said that Clemson’s two toughest games prior to the national championship clash with Alabama came in ACC games at home — a loss to Pittsburgh and a near-upset to N.C. State.

STILL ON THE SCENE: Florida State has five consecutive seasons of double-digit wins. While Clemson has been prospering in the postseason, the Seminoles haven’t been far behind.

For coach Jimbo Fisher, he sees motivation all around him.

“I think there’s a hunger, an urgency,” Fisher said.

Sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois said he knows that for the most part the Seminoles are only a few plays away from being among the elite.

So that’s why Francois said the details have become vital.

“Decision-making and accuracy,” he said of his offseason emphasis. “Get the ball out of my hand faster. Make faster decisions.”

ON THE RISE: A popular choice for a sleeper team this season could be North Carolina State, which has 17 starters returning.

The Wolfpack’s defensive front includes depth that includes six seniors, so a unit that ranked high last year could be even stingier.

“You want expectations and you have to earn them,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “That (perception) changes when you don’t live up to them.”

Overcoming Clemson, Florida State and Louisville in the division will be no easy task. Yet with defensive end Bradley Chubb, the Wolfpack has one of the most highly regarded returning players in the ACC.

Chubb said the Wolfpack can’t be consumed with the competition within the division. That helps with the internal motivation.

“We’re pushing to be the best,” he said. “We’re pushing every week to not be comfortable.”

All-purpose offensive back Jaylen Samuels said the Wolfpack is shying away from some of the attention.

“We just try to let the media do what they do with all the hype about NC State and we do all the dirty work,” Samuels said.

RECORD SETTER: Syracuse linebacker Zaire Franklin became a three-time attendee at the ACC Kickoff. That’s a league record.

Some of the shine has worn off for the senior, but he embraces the assignment.

“I take a great deal of pride in it that my coaches feel that way and the program honestly just gave me that responsibility to be considered an ambassador of the program for three straight years,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. It’s not too fun the third time around, but I do it for Syracuse.”

HELLO, CHARLOTTE: The ACC will bring its championship game back to Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.

The 2017 title game will mark the seventh time the conference holds its championship event there.

Because of the controversial North Carolina law known as HB2, the 2016 game was moved out of the state and played in Orlando, Fla. With that law altered, the ACC (along with NCAA postseason events) have returned to North Carolina.