CLEMSON - This is Clemson coach Dabo Swinney's favorite time of the year - his league champion Tigers primed for bowl practice and ready to chase a national title.
"This is fun for me," Swinney said Tuesday night.
The top-ranked Tigers (12-1, No. 1 CFP) have had most of the past 10 days off since dismantling Miami 38-3 to win their third straight Atlantic Coast Conference crown. That brought a third consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff where they'll face No. 4 Alabama (11-1) for - you guessed it - the third year in a row in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day.
Swinney said the players needed the break from what was a long season striving to match last year's national champions. They reconvened Sunday night for a brief workout in shorts before getting down to the serious business of prepping for the Crimson Tide.
"We've got a good plan," Swinney said.
The Tigers usually do. They are 40-3 the past three seasons, including one defeat coming to Alabama and coach Nick Saban in the 2015 title game, 45-40. Clemson faced the Tide in the final game a year ago, this time coming away with 35-31 victory with a last-second TD to shock favored Alabama.
The winner this time will leave with the Sugar Bowl trophy and a chance to play for the game's biggest prize - and certainly enhance the legacy of a growing rivalry between two of the most dominant programs of this era.
There's little doubt, Swinney said, that these Alabama-Clemson matchups will probably define this part of the decade in college football.
"I don't think there's any question some point down the road that we'll look back at this decade, for sure, and take great pride in it," Swinney said.
First, though, he's got a team to prepare.
The Tigers have played with a focus down the stretch that was not always as evident earlier. They've scored at least 31 points in their past five games, all victories. They've given up just 16 total points and one TD in the last three, two of them against potent offenses in South Carolina and the Hurricanes.
The Tigers were supposed to take a dip this season after losing 11 starters from the national champions, including All-Americans and NFL first-rounders in quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver Mike Williams. Still, Clemson's back where it's been the past two seasons.
"These guys just think they should win," Swinney said.
Receiver Ray-Ray McCloud said the Tigers will carry that belief into Alabama. McCloud, a junior who is third on the team with 46 catches, is excited for another chance to play the Crimson Tide, but said no matter the opponent, Clemson would prepare with the same mentality that's marked their success. Alabama is "just another team in the way," he said.
The time off has given players with small injuries and those with more significant ones to heal. Swinney believes starting linebacker Tre Lamar and cornerback Mark Fields would be ready come New Year's Day.
One backup who'll miss the Alabama game is linebacker Judah Davis, who is out with a knee injury. Swinney said Davis, the son of former Clemson linebacker Jeff Davis, could return if the team reaches the title game in Atlanta.
Swinney will juggle workouts with his players taking final exams this week. They'll practice on campus through Dec. 22 when the team will get time off for the holidays. The Tigers will reconvene Dec. 26 and head to New Orleans the next day.
By then, Swinney said, the game plan will be set so that practices in the Bayou will be about small refinements and polishing what's already in place.
"Everybody has the same amount of time, but how you use the time is different," Swinney said. "And I think that's what matters for us."
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