ATLANTA — Chick-fil-A game week kicked off Wednesday for LSU and Clemson as both teams practiced in the Georgia Dome for the first time and participated in the first of a series of bowl-related festivities.
LSU arrived by charter flight around mid-day, then went straight practice. The change in venue meant the end of the familiarity and solitude of on-campus work and the start of bowl week festivities.
With the game scheduled for Monday night, Wednesday was the equivalent of a Monday practice for a Saturday game.
This is LSU’s first return to a game-week routine since the Tigers played their regular-season finale at Arkansas on Nov. 23. Since LSU returned to practice Dec. 13, it’s been grinding through practices without a game-week focus.
“Finally,” LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said Wednesday night. “Usually we’ll go Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday. It’s pound, pound, pound. It’s crazy. Finally it’s a great old-fashioned Monday.”
The end of the monotony and return of a normal game-week rhythm was welcomed, but this week won’t otherwise be normal.
Several days of off-the-field festivities began as each team had a welcome party at Dave and Buster’s restaurant and arcade.
Coach Les Miles and the players will visit the Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital in Thursday morning, followed by an afternoon practice. The team’s day will conclude with a trip to a go-kart track.
“There are going to be a lot of distractions that can get you out of focus,” linebacker Kevin Minter said. “It’s just something we have to get through. This is a tough Clemson team. We need to be focused.
“There’s stuff that just comes with being at a bowl game. There’s cameras, people wanting to see you and talk to you. It’s a big commotion, but you’ve got to be able to see through that and keep your eye on the prize.”
Miles said the Tigers emphasized passing the ball in their on-campus practices, not only to sharpen that aspect of their offense but also to push the pass defense, which gave up more than 300 yards in each of the last three regular-season games.
“We threw the ball effectively and wanted to have an effect on our secondary, and I felt like it happened that way,” Miles said. “We kind of focused on a couple of key pieces that we needed to have improvement on and felt like improvement was made. We have a good, quality game week here, so we feel like that improvement will continue.”
Clemson, which arrived Tuesday evening, will follow an itinerary similar to LSU’s.
“Our focus has got to be 10 times better (than it was on campus),” running back Andre Ellington said. “We’ve got to eliminate the distractions. And the time that we have out there to practice, we’ve got to focus on that, and the time we’ve got to play, we go play and just have that mindset.”
Ellington said his team focused on “toughness and physicality” during on-campus preparation for LSU.
“You have to have that physicality when you play in a game like this,” he said. “It’s going to come down to four quarters and who wants it more at the end.”
Both teams broke from practice for a few days so the players could spend Christmas with their families.
Clemson tight end Brandon Ford said coach Dabo Swinney’s Christmas message to the team was to have its mind on football as soon as it arrived in Atlanta.
“You don’t want to have a week or two of preparation and then let guys go and they lose focus,” Ford said. “You want to take some time off to rest up and get down here and get back to work. Guys have done a great job of keeping their heads in it and understanding we play a game in less than five days.”
Both teams installed most of their game plans before leaving home.
“When you get to the bowl site, it’s pretty much polishing the stuff you’ve been putting in and polishing the stuff you’ve been working on since you’ve been in school,” Clemson safety Rashard Hall said. “The maturity of your team is just going to take over from that standpoint.
“Your maturity kicks in and your ability to have fun at fun times and be focused when it’s time for business.”
LSU held eight bowl practices in baton Rouge and will have four in Atlanta.
“In some instances, our bowl season is, by the number of practices, maybe even a little longer than our spring practice,” Miles said. “These extra bowl practices give us a chance to look at some of our younger players and improve and develop depth on the football team. I think bowl practices are a real benefit to your team as it allows individuals the chance for continued development while also preparing for an opponent.”
LSU junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger said he will return to the Tigers for his senior season. Mettenberger wasn’t one of the underclassmen expected to seriously consider entering the NFL draft, but he made his most definitive statement Wednesday night. “I don’t know too many teams that would want to draft a guy who threw for 2,400 yards and 11 touchdowns,” he said. “I’m definitely coming back for my senior year.” …LSU defensive end Lavar Edwards said he has accepted an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl, which is a significant opportunity for a player who emerged from the shadows to be a key player as a senior. “I had been hoping since the end of the season to get a chance to play in the Senior Bowl,” said Edwards, who has started six games and made a career-high 4.5 sacks this season. “I always thought I could compete in a situation like that. I’m going to work as hard as I can to make the best of that opportunity.”
Advocate sportswriter Scott Rabalais contributed to this report.