CLEMSON — As the days near closer to writing another chapter in the book of Clemson football, its head coach enjoys reviewing the ride to how the Tigers got here.
Five years ago, the program was turning the reins over to a wide receivers coach on an interim basis who just five years prior was working in real estate. Three years ago, Clemson went 6-7, and 21 months ago, it gave up 70 points in a BCS bowl.
The program’s place in college football is still uncertain. Elite? Second-tier? Flash in the pan?
Dabo Swinney sees just how Clemson is getting closer and closer to becoming a big deal in the landscape, permanently.
“We’re a good program now. We’re not just a good team; we’re a good program. This program is set up to have a lot of success, for many years,” Swinney said Tuesday at his weekly press conference, to preview the third-ranked Tigers’ impending matchup with No. 5 Florida State.
“There’s a difference between confidence and arrogance. These guys, they don’t hope to win, they expect to win. That’s a culture from how you talk to them, how you condition them, how you practice them, how you meet with them, all of those things. Everything goes into creating that attitude of belief.”
Since getting embarrassed by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, Clemson has played 19 games, and won 17. If it moves to 18 of 20, it’d mark a second win over a top-5 opponent in seven weeks in front of the home fans, including students who have been camping out all week for tickets.
“It’s a big deal. You see the tents out there. You see everybody getting ready for the game and getting geared up for it,” quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “It means everything, just to see as much as we’ve grown as a team and as a program, and we’ve grown that much as a fan base, as well.”
Swinney suggested Florida State is “possibly the best team in the country,” but doesn’t read much into betting lines which favor Florida State by a field goal.
“This is a toss-up, if you ask me,” Swinney said. “This is a game that comes down to a few plays.”
The promotion is out in full force, with ESPN releasing a peppy 30-second commercial Tuesday highlighting the top 5 clash coming Saturday night at 8:22 p.m. on ABC.
“Games like this, we relish it. We love it,” Boyd said. “We live in these moments, because that’s what we wanted.”
E.J. Manuel and the 2012 Seminoles tore up Clemson’s defense for 667 yards in 60 minutes in Tallahassee.
“Man, I had to turn it off. It wasn’t pretty,” Swinney said, of watching film of the game. “They kind of had their way with us.”
Jameis Winston replaces Manuel in a similar offensive system, so linebacker Spencer Shuey is intrigued to see if the much-improved defense can make amends.
“We watched a little bit of it from last year, and we kind of laugh at ourselves. It’s almost disgusting to see some of the mistakes we made and how far we’ve come,” Shuey said. “It’s nice getting another opportunity at the same scheme.”
Clemson paces the nation in third-down defense, sacks and tackles for loss, ranking fourth in red-zone defense and turnover margin, 10th in scoring defense (16.2 points per game) and 21st in total defense.
“Freshmen became sophomores, sophomores became juniors. We’ve got the same players,” Swinney said. “They were good players then; now they’re good players with experience.”
Shuey suffered turf toe on his right big toe against North Carolina State, a nagging inconvenience he’s playing through while remaining the Tigers’ second-leading tackler.
“It gets a little better week to week,” Shuey said. “But come on Sundays after the game, it’s almost back to square one. It definitely hurts a lot, so I just nurse it back to health for next Saturday.”
On gamedays, Shuey doesn’t feel the toe.
“I have too much adrenaline,” Shuey said. “I don’t really think about it as much, (the pain) goes away and I can block that out.”
This is the first matchup between two top-5 ACC teams in nearly eight years, and fourth in league history.
Throw in Miami cracking the top 10 — also ending an 8-year conference drought of three top-10 squads — and Virginia Tech checking in at No. 19, and the ACC’s got some swagger.
“Well, this is what they’ve been wanting, isn’t it? They can’t talk bad about us now,” Swinney said. “This is what we have not done as a conference, bottom line.”
Somewhat randomly during his 52-minute dissertation to a larger-than-normal assembly of media, Swinney referred to his younger players, and made a bold statement regarding freshman receiver Mike Williams.
“Mike Williams is going to be pretty good He’s better as a freshman than ‘Nuk’ was as a freshman. It’s not even really close,” Swinney said. “Now, will he develop the same? We’ll see.”
Williams has eight catches for 118 yards and a touchdown in six games this year. ‘Nuk’ is DeAndre Hopkins, a 2013 NFL Draft first-round selection who as a rookie caught 52 balls for 637 yards and four touchdowns, starting the last eight games of the year in 2010.
Freshmen Germone Hopper and Ronald Geohaghan have been welcomed to win back their spots in uniform on gameday, after being suspended for the Boston College game for a violation of team rules.
“As long as they complete their discipline this week, they’ll have an opportunity to rejoin us,” Swinney said. “They started that yesterday and again this morning. But I’m pleased with how they’ve responded.”