CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney doesn't need a top-four College Football Playoff ranking to know his fourth-ranked Tigers are playing well and have developed the leadership and chemistry they need to defend their national championship.
Swinney said the team's talent and execution are on par with last year's 15-0 title winners.
"The similarities to where we are now to where we were then, we were playing our best football and the leadership and chemistry were really, really good," he said. "And that's exactly where this group is."
It's hard to argue his point.
The Tigers have won 24 straight games with their offense operating at level that statistically is better than a year ago. Clemson had has four games with 600 or more yards this season, the first time that's ever happened. And the Tigers' average of 7.58 yards per play this fall is also tops in school history.
Clemson's defense, expected to be a concern after losing seven starters from a year ago, is giving up fewer points per game than last season when it lead the country in that category.
"It's exciting as we go into the fourth quarter of the season," Swinney said.
Clemson (9-0, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) looks to keep its momentum going when it plays at North Carolina State (4-4, 1-3) on Saturday night.
No one should expect Swinney to pay much attention to the CFP rankings, which come out for the first time this season Tuesday night and will be released weekly until four playoff teams are set Dec. 8.
"If we're two, three, four or 15, it's not worth the brain cells," said Swinney, who has seen his team drop in the Top 25 despite the preseason No. 1 pick not losing a game.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence said the team never pays much attention to what those on the outside think. He's spent much of season dealing with analysts breaking down his game — from his throwing motion to footwork to decision making. Though it's not all unwarranted. Much of the scrutiny that has come the 6-foot-6 sophomore's way is because of his eight interceptions — double his total from the national championship season.
But Lawrence has performed more like that sensational freshmen the past month with 12 touchdown passes and three picks the last four games. He had nine TDs and five interceptions the first five games.
Reigning ACC player of the year Travis Etienne lately has also stepped up his game. He has run for 640 yards and six touchdowns the last four games — which Clemson has won by a combined score of 208-45 — compared with 462 yards and five touchdowns the first five games.
"It's really important that we're playing our best football in November and getting better every week," Lawrence said. "It's something we take a lot of pride in."
The Wolfpack has played well against the Tigers, especially in Raleigh, North Carolina. They won at home in 2011 and stayed within single digits of Clemson in 2013 and 2017.
"This week the challenge is obviously a great one when you play a team that's done what Clemson's done," North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren said. "I could go through their statistics, but you all know where they're at. They do a great job on both sides of the ball."
Swinney doesn't want his players focused on rankings or positions, just what comes next. After North Carolina State, the Tigers play their final home game a week later against surprising No. 22 Wake Forest in a game where if both teams win this week will set up a winner-take-all contest for the ACC Atlantic's spot in the league's championship game.
Clemson finishes at state rival South Carolina on Nov. 30 before its expected postseason begins. By then, Swinney is certain the Tigers' path will be clear for everyone to see.
"We just stay locked in on what we can control," Swinney said.