CLEMSON — Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney smiled as he talked about welcoming members of the ClemsonLife program to practice Wednesday. The program is designed for students with intellectual disabilities interested in a postsecondary experience on a college campus, and Swinney was more than happy to open the doors for them.
"Who's got the best dance moves here?" Swinney asked the group at one point. Several hands shot up and a circle was formed. Soon Swinney was directing traffic, calling students into the circle, dancing along with them to the soundtrack of laughter and applause.
Swinney's demeanor shifted when asked about Saturday's game at North Carolina. The smile melted away. The Tigers, Swinney said, hopefully will look like a team that's already played four games.
"We're not a young team anymore," Swinney said. "We need to act like it. And we need to play like it."
Clemson coasted through the first four games of its schedule, having outscored opponents by a combined score of 169-40. Swinney expects similar results Saturday, though he knows it won't come easily, not with the legendary coach Mack Brown — one of his early mentors — manning the home sideline.
Here are four keys to victory for the No. 1 Tigers against the Tar Heels.
Keep pressure on Tar Heels' QB
This is probably high on the Tigers' priority list. Sam Howell, North Carolina's freshman quarterback, has been the team's engine. He's thrown for 1,024 yards and nine touchdowns with just two interceptions. The Tar Heels have lost two contests in a row, but Howell kept them competitive late into both games.
"(Howell) plays with a lot of passion," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
Clemson recruited Howell, but he opted for North Carolina after initially verbally committing to Florida State. Swinney has been impressed by the start to his college career.
"He's a big reason they've had a chance to win every game," Swinney said. "He's as tough as they come. He's taken some hits. And he just gets better. And he doesn't run to get down. He's running to punish people. He's a tough, tough, hard-nosed player."
Forget who's on the opposing sideline
Clemson knows Brown's resume. He's a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and he won a national championship at Texas in 2005.
It's important for the Tigers to not let Brown's reputation serve as intimidation. Once the game starts, it's up to the players. Sure, Brown is a successful coach, but so is Swinney. Maybe players can shake Brown's hand afterwards. But don't think about him during the game.
Let Lawrence, Etienne shine
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne might be the two most talented players in the nation, but they've hardly shone this season. Tigers coaches have taken to resting their two stars with games out of hand.
Saturday would be a good opportunity to let the duo shine. The game is on ABC, and given Brown and Swinney's relationship, will be one of the most hyped contests of the week.
Both sat for most of last week's 52-10 throttling of Charlotte, but North Carolina represents a different level of opponent. Ride Lawrence and Etienne, and the Tigers should have no problems.
Finish the job
This is more of a comment on North Carolina's late-game success than anything wrong Clemson has done. In their lone test of the season, the Tigers shut the door late on Texas A&M in a 24-10 win.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, have made a habit of staging late comeback efforts. It worked Aug. 31, when they erased an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit against South Carolina to claim a 24-20 win. They weren't as fortunate this past week, when they trailed Appalachian State by 10 at halftime and stormed back, only to fall, 34-31.
It's imperative for Clemson to finish the job. A fourth-quarter lead is hardly safe with North Carolina on the other side. The defending national champions need to squash any thoughts of a comeback before things get dicey.
Clemson 45, North Carolina 7