CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clelin Ferrell fidgets in his seat, knowing how close — and how far away — to achieving what he returned to Clemson to capture: The national championship.
The talented defensive end is near the top of most mock NFL drafts and was a first-round candidate this time a year ago when he announced he would return to school for a shot at another crown. Ferrell was part of a core group of starters — defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, defensive end Austin Bryant, left guard Mitch Hyatt — considered high-round pro prospects who returned to the college grind this season.
And despite Clemson's stellar season , the group's job is far from finished.
"The goal wasn't to come back here," Ferrell said of reaching the title game. "The goal was to win a national championship and we didn't do that yet."
The second-ranked Tigers (14-0) have that chance when they face No. 1 Alabama (14-0) on Monday night in Santa Clara, California.
It's not a stretch to say Clemson couldn't have gotten this far without the return of its core of NFL-caliber leaders.
Ferrell, Bryant and Wilkins lead a front four on a defense that leads the country with 52 sacks and 108 tackles for loss. The group has been so stout up front that even with backup Albert Huggins playing for suspended starter Dexter Lawrence at defensive tackle, Clemson posted six sacks — its most in a game this season — on Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book in a 30-3 loss at the Cotton Bowl last week.
Hyatt, a four-year starter who's played the most snaps in Clemson history, is the anchor of an offensive line that's helped the team rush for an all-time single-season record 3,588 yards. Tailback Travis Etienne set single-season marks this year with 1,572 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground.
Wilkins, the All-American tackle, is less strident than his friend Ferrell about the journey since he put off the pros to add a graduate degree to his resume.
"It's been gratifying all year," Wilkins said. "Just my college experience coming back because I've done everything a lot more. Pretty much everything I set out to do this year I've done."
Wilkins, who has 5.5 sacks and 14 stops behind the line of scrimmage, feels he's become a better player, gotten closer to his teammates and enjoyed every minute of his Clemson experience.
"Getting to this point, obviously, is great, but it's always the journey that's special," he said.
Clemson's oldest players understand all of that. They were raw, wet behind the ears freshmen when the Tigers played for a national title and lost 45-40 to Alabama after the 2015 season. A year later, the more seasoned, determined group came out on top in a nail-biting, 35-31 victory over the Crimson Tide decided on Deshaun Watson's last-second pass to Hunter Renfrow.
Renfrow, a senior starter on this year's team, believes having so many talented players with NFL potential committing themselves to Clemson was an early boost to this year's run. While Clemson has plenty of potential in young defensive linemen like Xavier Thomas, Justin Foster and Logan Rudolph who could've stepped in, they could not match the instant credibility Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Ferrell gave the Tigers heading into the season, Renfrow said.
Austin Bryant smiled when asked how much he thought back on how he might've been prepping for the NFL playoffs this season instead of the national title game in college. "Yeah, but I've never been a 'What if?' person," he said. "This is where I am."
Bryant and Wilkins shook off questions if they, like several prominent college players headed to the NFL, would have passed on a lower, non-College Football Playoff bowl to start prepping for the pros.
That's an easy one, Ferrell said, since there was no chance in his mind Clemson was missing the fourth consecutive College Football Playoff berth with him on the team.
"Every year I've been here we've been in the playoffs," he said. "So I never really thought about any of that of guys not playing in a bowl game or finishing out the season."
It's not arrogant, Ferrell said, just a simple statement of fact given what he's seen from the inside.
"I just know the type of work we put in," he said. "I know the success we'd have."