CLEMSON — Did Dabo Swinney ever play in or coach an option offense?
“Never,” Swinney said. “I was an (I-formation) guy my whole life.”
Well, that’s not totally true. One time. In college.
His junior year at Alabama in 1991, the No. 16-ranked Crimson Tide visited No. 6 Florida in week two, after spending all spring and summer breaking in a new quarterback and integrating the high school-like playbook heavy on complex backfield lineups and simplistic running calls.
The result: Florida 35, Alabama 0.
“That was the end of the option for us,” Swinney recalled.
Now Clemson’s head coach, Swinney gets to gameplan against the triple option every year, since the Tigers’ (8-1, 6-1 ACC) crossover opponent from the Coastal Division happens to be Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2), with its A-Backs and B-Backs and its throwing the football once every five plays on average.
“It’s a one-game season in itself,” Swinney said Tuesday. “They are so different from anybody else that you play. It’s all about playing well and taking care of the football.”
It hasn’t exactly been an easy task. Swinney has a lifetime losing record against just two of the other 13 ACC teams: he’s 2-4 against Florida State, and 2-4 against Georgia Tech.
The Tigers can take a step toward rectifying that Thursday night before a national television audience against the Yellow Jackets, desperate to preserve their ACC Coastal championship hopes.
Perhaps it’s not so much Georgia Tech’s 311.2 rushing yards per game that concerns the Tigers — it’s the 18.2 yards per catch, which ranks second in the country behind only Baylor.
“They’ll lull you to sleep and then, phew, it’s 50 yards,” Swinney said. “They don’t throw it a lot. Their leading receiver’s got 19 catches. But usually when they throw it, it’s a big play. They create 1-on-1s, so you’ve got to win those 1-on-1s. You’ve got to be very, very disciplined.
“Sometimes guys want to go make plays. And this is a game where it’s not about making plays. It’s about doing your job, because as soon as you don’t, you pay for it.”
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson knows his team is the underdog, and it’s not just because Clemson has home-field advantage along with national award contenders Tajh Boyd at quarterback, Sammy Watkins at receiver and Vic Beasley at defensive end.
“They’ve been good offensively, but this might be their best team defensively since I’ve been here, just personnel-wise and athletically,” Johnson said. “They’ve had some good individual players, but as a whole this might be their best defensive team since I’ve been here.”
Tech boasts the nation’s No. 13 total defense itself, but they’ll deal with a revived Clemson offense (99 points in its past two games) captained by a determined leader.
“As everybody knows, this is my last go-around. This is a defining moment for this team, for this season,” Boyd said. “It’s really all about finishing. We’ve had a good season thus far, but we want to make it a great season. The only way to do that is by finishing strong.”
Boyd recalled former Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who Boyd passed earlier this season as the program’s second-winningest quarterback behind Rodney Williams. (Williams had 32 victories; Boyd is 29-7 with four games to go.)
“Tremendous finish to that (2005) season. It started off ugly, but they had a tremendous season. That’s all people remember,” Boyd said. “The word is finish. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Whitehurst was 25-15 from 2003-05, but in 2003 Clemson started 5-4 and finished 4-0. In 2004, Clemson started 1-4 and finished 5-1. In 2005, Clemson started 2-3 and finished 6-1.
“This is when it matters. This is November. It matters big-time how we play and how we finish,” Swinney said. “This is when people really separate, in November. Everybody just jockeys in September and October for good position. We’ve competed very consistently.”
Clemson is one of four teams (Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon) that have spent the entire season ranked in the top 10. With a win Thursday night, it puts itself in great shape for a potential Orange Bowl invitation.
“Our team has hung in there and had a really good season to this point,” Swinney said. “But we’re going to be judged on how we finish. That’s what November is all about, is trying to finish with your best foot forward. Everybody knows the opportunity.”