10 at 10: What Dabo Swinney had to say about Auburn, high expectations and his job security

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and Alabama head coach Nick Saban are coaching against each other for the third time in as many years. File/AP Photo/Chris Carlson

CHARLOTTE — We’re a little more than a week away from Clemson breaking fall camp, and embarking on what the team and its fans hope is a season even more remarkable than the last one.

Rest assured, The Post and Courier has a great coverage season ahead, with plenty of human interest profiles, enterprise angles and probing topics on the way in the pages of this state’s largest daily newspaper as well as online at postandcourier.com, on your mobile app and on Twitter at @Aaron_Brenner and @Sapakoff.

Along the way, we’ll roll out the occasional ‘7 at 7’ and ’10 at 10’, dishing out seven or ten quick-hit items at the corresponding hour – and sometimes that’ll be the morning, sometimes it’ll be the evening.

For starters, here are ten Dabo Swinney remarks from last Friday’s ACC Football Kickoff that might not make the cut in a future larger story, but were nonetheless interesting enough to post here:

1) Items 2 through 9 are listed chronologically based on when Swinney said them during his breakout session with print reporters. This first item was raised simply because it was a revealing comment on how Swinney feels about the placement of the Tigers’ yearly game against a Power 5 opponent (other than South Carolina):

“I don’t necessarily like opening up on the road at a place like Auburn,” Swinney said. “There’s a good chance you get beat. There’s a long list of people who’ve been beat at Auburn. Openers are tough. But it’s exciting at the same time. You’ve got to go play.”

The emphasis in Swinney’s voice was the fact that the game opens the season, not that it’s against Auburn. Swinney was answering a question about non-conference schedule structuring, which Swinney has long outlined as the Gamecocks, a major-conference opponent (usually SEC, in years that Clemson’s not dutied to play Notre Dame), a lower-level FBS opponent and an in-state FCS program.

Anyway, the Tigers have opened their season away from Memorial Stadium just twice in the Swinney era. They edged Auburn 26-19 in the 2012 Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic – an Auburn team that turned out to barely win three games – and lost 45-21 at Georgia in 2014 in a game that was competitive until the fourth quarter.

Clemson is just 1-4 in season openers away from Memorial Stadium (two neutral, three road) since 1985, when the Tigers won 20-17 at Virginia Tech. Since 1985, Clemson is 22-3 in season openers that did take place at Death Valley.

2) A reporter asked Swinney about the gap between Florida State & Clemson and the rest of the ACC – uh huh, that gap – and what role specifically recruiting plays in it.

“This is a player’s game. I think coaching certainly matters, but players deserve the credit,” Swinney said. “I’m a much better coach with Deshaun Watson than I am without him. Recruiting is the lifeline of any college program in any sport. It’s not about the rankings of recruiting; it’s about the evaluation. It’s about the character, the type of people you’re bringing in, and the development of those people. That’s the culture that gets created. Definitely about the players.”

A peek at the most recent signing classes of February 2016: per Rivals.com team rankings, Florida State’s class ranked second in the nation, Clemson’s was sixth, and the next-closest ACC squad was Miami at No. 21. In 2015: FSU was No. 3, Clemson was No. 4, Miami was next at No. 26. The list goes on and on from there.

3) Because of its Big Two and Little Twelve construction, it would seem the ACC is alternatively one of the most likely Power 5 conferences to be left out of the College Football Playoff and one of the most likely to qualify two teams for the playoff.

How would Swinney feel about one league garnering half the playoff spots?

“Why not? The best teams get in. The good news is, they gotta earn it,” Swinney said. “Who knows what’s going to happen in college football? Everybody might have 2 losses. There might be two ACC teams, one’s undefeated, one’s got one – I don’t know. Could be any other conference, too. It’s not an impossible theory. It could definitely happen.”

Swinney went on to say conference champs should be held in high regard.

“I mean, it would have to be an unusual circumstance across the board for two teams (from the same conference) to get in,” Swinney said. “But not out of the realm at all. I mean, you might have other conferences where their winner might be 8-4. Is the 8-4 team better than the 11-1 team that only lost to the No. 1 (ranked) team? I don’t think so. So all things being considered when the committee looks at it, I think being a conference champion is of huge importance and relevance to their decision-making.”

4) Nick Saban, that clever cat. He went to ESPN’s Car Wash and bowed down to Clemson and Deshaun Watson, calling the former the favorite to win the crown this fall on account of the latter.

“I think Coach Saban’s trying to kiss up for that onside kick,” Swinney said, referring to “that” onside kick in the national title game last Jan. 11. “That’s it. He’s just trying to be nice.

“(Seriously,) it’s nice of him to throw out some good compliments, especially of a guy like Deshaun, and of our program. I know he has great respect for our program. But he also knows, like I do, all this stuff is really meaningless. There’s been a lot of preseason teams picked to win it all, and they don’t deliver the trophy and say y’all are the preseason No. 1 team. It doesn’t work that way.”

5) The following point really sums up where Swinney has brought the Tigers in the last few years: “We’re just proud to have a team that’s relevant, and a program that people expect to have a chance to be in the hunt, because we do. We have a chance. We’re in the hunt. There’s several other teams out there just like us. There is no ranking in my opinion.”

Oh, right, Swinney hates preseason polls.

“I wish they wouldn’t even do rankings until, like, October. Because there’s too much turnover and transition and injuries in camp. Too many things that can happen to change all that stuff,” Swinney said. “I don’t really care for all that, but I know it’s part of it, it creates a way to pass the time for people to get to the season.”

6) Someone asked Swinney if it was an advantage to have Watson as his quarterback, essentially placing Swinney’s favorite topic these days on a tee.

“About as big of an advantage as you can have,” Swinney said. “He’s an incredible player, and he’s a great leader that’s committed to everything right you could possibly want in a young man. It’s a huge advantage when you’ve got a guy like him that can run and throw and he’s as smart as he is. Loves to prepare, loves the grind. Everybody wants that type of advantage, that’s for sure.”

It did seem like Watson, indicated by Friday’s ACC Football Kickoff interviews, is starting to become more comfortable in the spotlight. How, Swinney was asked, has Watson handled all this fame this well?

“DNA. His mom. How he’s been raised,” Swinney said. “That’s who he is. I think that’s been nurtured and enhanced even more through his experience here at Clemson. That’s just who he is. His coaches in high school. Everybody’s had a part in his development.

“He’s five hours short of graduating from a top-20 public institution in two and a half years. That’s insane. That’s the type of focus and drive (he has,) that’s how he grinds. He just doesn’t get distracted.

“He’s a great human being that just happens to be a good football player.”

7) This was one of my favorite quotes of Swinney’s session, because it’s so true, and a potential detriment to Clemson’s future success.

“It’s amazing when you see some of these guys like a Mitch Hyatt, like a Deshaun Watson, like a Sammy Watkins, do what they do as a young player,” Swinney said. “It’s not the norm. And it hurts other people because it creates these unrealistic expectations – ‘oh, he’s supposed to be great as a freshman.’ You’re supposed to get better each year.”

Translation: freshmen aren’t supposed to rock right away. Just because Watson was as roaring success as a young player doesn’t mean Kelly Bryant’s automatically going to rock it right away. Just because Hyatt was a fine offensive tackle as a freshman doesn’t mean Jake Fruhmorgen’s automatically going to be a fine offensive tackle as a sophomore. Just because Kevin Dodd waited his turn and became a top-40 draft pick doesn’t mean Richard Yeargin’s automatically going to do the same. Careful when assuming reinforcements will be just as effective as their predecessors. That’s when expectations inflate to dangerous levels.

8) And now, an ode to Ben Boulware. Yeah, the guy in the rolled up capris.

“He just kind of beats to his own drum,” Swinney said. “He’s fun. He’s such a great young man. He loves to play, loves to practice. He hates to lose. He hates to be subbed out. Even if it’s in practice.

“He just brings this energy, and he’s his biggest critic. He hates to make a mistake. He studies all the time. In a different way, he commands and demands that everybody else around him is putting in the same type of effort. If you’re not, you’re going to hear it from him.”

9) Swinney’s final question in the breakout room was on Louisville, a team that has many Clemson coaches mighty concerned for that Oct. 1 matchup at Memorial Stadium.

“I think Louisville can beat anybody on any day,” Swinney said. “They’ve got good coaches, they’ve got excellent players across the board. I think they’re going to continue to recruit at a high level. Nobody will be excited to play Louisville, I promise you. They’re a team we’ll have to play our very best to have a chance to beat them.”

10) Finally, somebody in the press conference room was trying to get a point across about the volatility of being a college football coach, which is valid. According to the official transcript, the question went like this: “Even with all you’ve accomplished, do you feel like you have job security, or how much job security do you feel you have? With each level of accomplishment that you reach, does the pressure grow almost unrealistic?”

On the topic of Dabo Swinney’s job security: there are 20 million reasons in 2016-17 he’s got job security, and 18 million reasons in 2018 and 14 million reasons in 2019, and so on and so forth.

So, to an extent, that’s an ill-informed question at best, and a stupid question at worst. However, Swinney understand the questioner’s point, and gave a nice holistic answer on the subject.

“Ain’t no job security in what I do, that’s for sure,” Swinney said. “If they’ll tell (former Florida State) coach Bobby Bowden it might be time to move on, they’ll tell Dabo, I promise you. There’s no security in what we do.

“But I don’t think of it like that. I just try to focus on doing the best I can do day in and day out, year in and year out. Sometimes, as I tell my players, the days are long but the years are short. Just try to enjoy the journey. That’s really it.

“I mean, we don’t know if we’re all going to wake up and have air in our body tomorrow. I don’t really worry about stuff I don’t control. I just worry about my personal approach and attitude.

“I love what I do. I’m passionate about what I do. I’m passionate about where I do it at, a place like Clemson. I just try to do my best. If my best isn’t good enough, I mean, you move on.

“We embrace the expectations. Always have. I think our guys understand that. There’s a small margin for error week in and week out with this profession and this job. None of that stuff really bothers me. It comes with the territory. I just try to stay true to my core values, do what I think is best, in the best way I can possibly do it.”