PINEHURST, N.C. — That schedule, and that quarterback, were too tantalizing to pass up, even with the three-time defending champion still around.
Clemson is the media’s preseason pick to win the 2015 ACC Championship, based on media voting Tuesday at the ACC Football Kickoff at the Pinehurst Resort. This, even though Florida State has a 24-game winning streak against conference opponents.
The Tigers’ sophomore quarterback, Deshaun Watson, is the ACC Preseason Player of the Year. This, even though reigning ACC POY James Conner, a Pittsburgh running back, has returned, along with prominent and more proven quarterbacks Justin Thomas of Georgia Tech, Brad Kaaya of Miami, Marquise Williams of North Carolina and Jacoby Brissett of N.C. State.
Just as he did two years ago, when Clemson and Tajh Boyd received top billing at the summer kickoff event, head coach Dabo Swinney left the chest-beating to somebody else.
“Y’all know my answer to (how I feel about) that. I’ve been pretty consistent with that, whether we were picked third, fourth or first,” Swinney said.
More than anything else, Swinney elected to point out Clemson’s track record of exceeding expectations on a national level. Five of his six full years as head coach (all but 2010), Clemson has finished with a higher Associated Press ranking than where it started in the preseason poll.
The likelihood remains Florida State, a 2014 College Football Playoff semifinalist, will outrank the Tigers in the preseason poll. However, that the Seminoles visit Clemson on Nov. 7, and the Tigers are more steady at the quarterback position after FSU lost No. 1 NFL Draft pick Jameis Winston, swayed the media’s disposition.
“When we were the favorite, they didn’t give me the trophy,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “When you’re the underdog, they’re not giving Clemson the trophy. ... Clemson deserves it. They’re a great program. Dabo has done a great job. We have our work cut out.”
Said Swinney, “There’s a bunch of teams that have a chance to win the league, and I believe we’re one of those teams. Hopefully when it’s all said and done, those who voted for us, we can make them look smart.”
Stringing together bowl wins over LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma hasn’t hurt, either.
“I think that’s the thing that we’ve done best over the last several years. We have become an incredible consistent program week in and week out,” Swinney said.
Whereas Swinney continue to preach equality in terms of how the Tigers practice — per Swinney, they don’t prepare any differently for S.C. State than Notre Dame — he recognizes Clemson has become one of the biggest games on the schedule for many opponents.
“We’re definitely going to get everybody’s best shot. We know that,” Swinney said. “When you win big games, it builds a confidence within your culture, and slowly builds a different perception for your brand nationally. Six years ago, it was just, let’s shut your mouth and go to work and see if we can win some ballgames.
“Now we’re at a point where our guys feel like we’re one of the better programs in the country, and we want to stay there.”
Clemson received 101 out of 158 possible first-place votes to win the ACC Atlantic Division over FSU, which visits Memorial Stadium Nov. 7. FSU received 56 of those votes, while Louisville captured one vote.
Clemson was selected the 2013 preseason favorite, only for Winston to emerge as the Heisman Trophy winner and lead FSU to a 51-14 romp at Death Valley in a battle of top-five opponents.
Georgia Tech was selected the ACC Coastal favorite.
Watson received 69 first-place nods, 23 ahead of Conner in the player of the year voting. During his freshman year, Watson recorded a passer rating of 188.6 in eight games, which fell one short of making him eligible to surpass Heisman winner Marcus Mariota as the most efficient quarterback in the country.
“It’s an honor for him. It’s a privilege and a blessing for us to have a guy like that on our team,” Swinney said. “We’re very blessed to have a bunch of good players, but especially Deshaun, because he’s a great young man.”
Watson suffered three injuries in the year of 2014, but is reported to be back to full strength entering fall camp.
“Hopefully we can catch a few breaks,” Swinney said. “He’s got to do a good job of taking care of himself. But at the end of the day, it’s not just about him. We just need him out there for 13-plus games.”