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Clemson has edge in playoff experience over Notre Dame

December 20, 2018
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FILE - In this Nov. 10, 2018, file photo, Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell (99) and teammates celebrate their 27-7 victory over Boston College in a game in Boston. Ferrell was named to the 2018 AP All-America NCAA college football team, Monday, Dec. 10, 2018.(AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Amari Rodgers was a freshman trying to fit into Clemson’s plans a year ago when the Tigers opened practice for the College Football Playoff. He didn’t have to go far to have any questions answered.

“Last year, it was my first time, so I was kind of asking around, Deon Cain and Ray Ray (McCloud), how they prepared for it because they won a national championship the year before,” Rodgers said. “So I just followed their ways.”

This time around, Rodgers will be able to do some of the leading.

The sophomore receiver is among 21 of 22 starters for the Tigers with playoff experience and said that’s a huge edge to carry into this year’s latest playoff run, which starts Dec. 29 at the Cotton Bowl when the second-ranked Tigers (13-0, CFP No. 2) take on Notre Dame (12-0, CFP No. 3) for a spot in the championship game.

“Most of us don’t know anything different” than playing in the playoffs, said Clemson All-American defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.

An energetic, 320-pound defensive leader, Wilkins was there with wide eyes and lots of questions in 2015 when Clemson was a first-time playoff participant. Things have changed since then.

“Being consistent and winning at a high level is something that’s very hard to do, so it doesn’t get any easier,” Wilkins said this week. “But you kind of know things that work for you as a team and as a player and the things that didn’t work for you.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney feels there’s a cool confidence among his players when they step onto the field for practices or games. They’re a veteran-driven group who’ve celebrated championships (four consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference titles and the national championship following the 2016 season) and lived through playoff missteps (losses to Alabama in 2015 championship game and last year’s semifinal).

“We all draw on our experience, good and bad, as you go through whatever it is you’re doing,” Swinney said. “It’s our fourth time in a row (in the playoffs). We’ve learned a lot over the years and I think we’ve got a very good formula we believe in in how we get ready.”

And how they perform in the biggest games.

Clemson is 53-4 the past four seasons . Besides the two playoff losses to the Crimson Tide, it has only lost a pair of regular-season games to unranked opponents in Pittsburgh in 2016 and Syracuse in 2017. The run includes playoff wins over Oklahoma in 2015 and Ohio State and Alabama on the way to the 2016 title.

Swinney said the line between success and failure at this level comes down to just a few plays. “Fundamentals and technique and physicality and intelligence is what wins,” he said. “There are all four really good (playoff) teams. So you’ve got to play well and you’ve got to prepare well.”

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly accepts his job is different with a roster full of playoff newcomers.

“As a staff, we want to make sure that we get an opportunity to prepare them for the moment,” he said. “It’s much larger than a traditional game.”

Not for the experienced Tigers, Clemson safety K’Von Wallace said.

The mistakes, he believes, come when players place more emphasis on prepping for Notre Dame than they did to face Furman (a 48-7 victory) to start the season.

“Each game is the biggest game,” he said. “This game is not the biggest game because it’s the playoffs, it’s always that way.”

Young players learn quickly from veterans what’s expected and how to conduct themselves at practice and at the bowl sites.

Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence , the lone first-time playoff starter, is grateful he can tap any one of his offensive linemen on the shoulder for a heads up if there are questions.

“I’m going to hold my own,” Lawrence joked, “but it’s nice knowing that all these guys have been through it and really have a lot of experience. They know what it takes. That helps a lot,” he said.

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