CHARLOTTE — More than ever, Clemson football players and coaches have run out of opportunities to play the disrespect card.
Much of the Tigers’ run to last year’s national championship game was built on the old “nobody believes in us” underdog refrain. Weeks leading up to games against Notre Dame, Florida State, North Carolina and Oklahoma saw Clemson players feeding off pundits’ predictions that the Tigers’ winning steak was about to end.
The group of non-believers is difficult to locate as Clemson enters this season with high hopes internally and even higher expectations externally. Therefore, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, linebacker Ben Boulware and quarterback Deshaun Watson spent Friday afternoon at the ACC Football Kickoff fending off the lofty praise, while illustrating how Clemson might be well-equipped to handle the projections.
“We’ve been the favorite probably 90 percent of the time the last five years,” Swinney said. “So, very rarely have we been the so-called underdog. That’s a role we’ve embraced for a long time. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”
But when the Associated Press preseason rankings come out, it’s likely Clemson will begin in the top five for the first time in 26 years. Clemson’s highest-ever preseason ranking is No. 4, both in 1984 and 1988. Otherwise, the highest starting point was at No. 8 in 2013.
“Speaking for me personally, I don’t care. I couldn’t care less if we’re ranked 120th or No. 1,” Boulware said. “We’ve been so successful at Clemson because we’re really not worried about what the outsiders are saying or what our ranking is. We’re focused on us. I know that’s probably cliché to most of y’all because y’all hear it from Coach Swinney all the time, but it’s so true. Every one of our guys is focused on us, focused on our gameplan, how we work, how we prepare.”
Watson is coming off a Heisman Trophy campaign and enters 2016 as one of the brightest stars in college football. He’s taking all the preseason accolades, team and individual, in stride.
“It’s simple. Each and every year is a different year. We have to start over,” Watson said. “Last year’s wins, last year’s touchdowns or stops, aren’t going to do anything for us this year. We know we have a target on us, and we’ve got to go 10 times harder to get where we want to go this year than we did last year. Nothing’s going to be given to us; we have to go earn it.”
Swinney acknowledged the pressures his players faced through most of 2015, when the Tigers built a 14-0 record and played 10 consecutive Saturdays without a bye week knowing that a single slip-up would likely wreck their College Football Playoff hopes.
“These guys aren’t worried about, ‘oh, well, this team really wants to beat us.’ Guess what? We really want to beat them too,” Swinney said. “We treat every game as if, truly, our season depends on it.
“You might have a tough loss. Well, the season starts tomorrow, let’s go win the next one. You might have a huge, euphoric win. Well, the season starts tomorrow, let’s go win the next one. It’s always about what’s next. We’re a forward-looking program, not a backward-looking program. We learn and we grow, but we don’t dwell on the past, good, bad, successes, failures. It’s about right now, what are we doing today, because ultimately that’s going to determine our performance tomorrow.”
Clemson experienced unprecedented success with 14 wins last season, but it is the one loss — a 45-40 national championship defeat to Alabama — that has motivated the Tigers through this offseason.
“I think if we would have won the last game, we’d be much more likely to be more complacent this year, because we would have been 15-0, been one of the best teams in college football history,” Boulware said. “The fact that we lost the biggest game of our career leaves a big enough chip on our shoulder to last the whole season.”
And so, Clemson soars into 2016 as a preseason darling, full of confidence and flush with a target on their backs.
“We don’t care who we’re playing or what our ranking is,” Boulware said. “If we do play to our standard, I think we’re unbeatable.”