It was Wednesday, December 24, Christmas Eve in Orlando, Florida, but it might as well have been a regular Monday late afternoon in Clemson, S.C. for the Clemson football team as it held its first practice in the host city for its December 29 Russell Athletic Bowl contest against No. 24 Oklahoma. Despite the holiday season atmosphere, the Tigers were all business as they prepare to face the winningest team in college football since World War II.
The major difference was the site of the practice, as the Tigers worked in the Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium the site of next Monday night’s game. The facility has undergone an extensive renovation and is in terrific condition.
“We had a good practice, a good start to our work week,” Dabo Swinney said to his team after practice. “We have to continue to work hard this week. This was just like a Monday and I want everyone to be in that frame on mind. Tomorrow we will practice at Tinker Field and it will be like a Tuesday (even though it will be Christmas Day).”
The week has gotten off to a good start for the Tigers. Everyone is eligible from an academic standpoint and only one player was late for last night’s team meeting. That tardiness was excused because of a cancelled airline flight.
Swinney feels his team is in a good frame of mind as there is much to play for against the Sooners. “We have a chance for a 10-win season for the fourth straight year. Only Alabama, Oregon and Northern Illinois have done that and we are the only team in the nation that can join them with a bowl win. That is the type of consistency we want to be known for. We also have a chance for a third straight bowl win, something that has not been done at Clemson since the 1986-90 era.”
Swinney also said it would mean something to beat a program as strong as Oklahoma and add them to the list of recent bowl wins over LSU and Ohio State. A Clemson win over the Sooners would give Clemson bowl wins over three programs that have won the National Championship since 2000. “Oklahoma is one of the great programs in America. They were ranked number-one by a lot of people coming into this season. Their season has shown how three or four plays can make a difference.”
Much of the talk after the practice was about the tight end position, the area that has been struck by injury more than any other this year. Jordan Leggett, Clemson’s top pass catcher at the position this year with 14 receptions for 161 yards and a touchdown, suffered a knee injury in practice last week and is still out of practice. His status for the game on Monday is unknown.
“It is only Monday in terms of game week preparation. We will see how he is later in the week,” said Swinney. “It has been a position that has been struck by injury all year dating to the season opener at Georgia when Sam Cooper broke a leg in warmups. It really has been incredible.”
Cooper has returned to play in eight games, five as a starter and is regarded as Clemson’s top blocking tight end and a team leader. The graduate was named one of Clemson’s four permanent co-captains for the 2014 season at the conclusion of the regular season. Past that the Tigers have converted defensive lineman Roderick Byers, who has been working after practice on his pass catching skills.
“We will be very strong at this position down the road. But the injury list has been something out of the ordinary. “ Stanton Seckinger, who has six career touchdowns and all have come in Clemson wins, is out with a knee injury that required surgery. Jay Jay McCullough has been suspended for the game. D.J. Greenlee suffered a torn ACL earlier in the season.
“We are redshirting two excellent tight ends in Milan Richard (nephew of former Georgia All-American Herschel Walker, and Cannon Smith, son of former Clemson defensive end Bill Smith). We will be very strong at tight end next year.”
Wednesday afternoon the team headed to Disney World. The Tigers will have a Christmas celebration at brunch on Thursday morning, then have a two-hour practice in the afternoon at Thunder Field, which is a facility adjacent to the Orlando Citrus Bowl.
*Every player made the 7:45 pm meeting last night at the hotel with the exception of Houston, Texas native Kellen Jones who had a flight cancelled from his home state. But, he still made it to the hotel last night.
*The Orlando Citrus Bowl has artificial turf, which should put a smile on the faces of Clemson coaches and players. Clemson has won nine straight games on artificial turf dating to the 2010 season and the current senior class is 8-0 on artificial turf.
*Clemson is looking for its third straight bowl victory, something the program has not done since the 1986-90 era when the program won five in a row. Two of those five wins came in the Orlando Citrus Bowl, the site of Monday’s game. Clemson beat Penn State in the 1988 Citrus Bowl and Oklahoma in the 1989 Citrus Bowl.
*With 41 wins, Clemson is one of the top 15 winningest programs in the nation over the last four years. If Clemson can defeat Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl, Clemson would have beaten seven of the other top 14 schools on the list. Clemson’s seniors have already beaten Florida State, Ohio State, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Louisville since they joined the program in 2011.