CLEMSON — Death Valley can’t be a safe haven every week.
The leaders of the No. 3 team in the country, as voted for the fourth consecutive week by The Associated Press, understand that. Clemson takes to new territory Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in the program’s first trip to Syracuse.
“We’ve got to be a good road team; it doesn’t matter where you go. That’s part of it,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said on his Sunday teleconference, the day after the Tigers (4-0, 2-0 ACC) polished off Wake Forest, 56-7. “We’ve got one win on the road under our belt, and we played OK. Hopefully we can go on this road trip and play a little better.”
The road to Raleigh was rocky, as Clemson’s offense needed about a half of football to get on track in a 26-14 tussle to victory.
“I’m not into pretty wins or ugly wins,” Swinney said. “Bottom line is just win. Find ways to win games every week. They’re all huge, and it shouldn’t matter where we play. We’ve got a job to do, regardless. I think our guys will be excited. I’ve never been there; I’m excited about going up there. I’ve seen Syracuse on TV a million times.”
Usually, the team doesn’t visit the opposing stadium until shortly before gametime. But the Tigers plan to do so Friday, since they’ve never played at the Carrier Dome, also the home of Syracuse basketball.
For the first time since the season began, one of the 62 voting coaches in the USA Today poll decided Clemson was worthy of the No. 1 billing. (The Tigers are No. 4 in the poll; top-ranked Alabama still commands 59 first-place votes, and No. 2 Oregon has a pair.)
Swinney was asked if he, one of the 62 voting coaches, was the culprit.
“No, I did not vote us No. 1. I don’t think we’ve earned that,” Swinney said. “When I feel like we’ve earned it, I’ll vote us No. 1. But I don’t see us as No. 1 right now. I think Alabama’s No. 1 until somebody beats them. They’re the champ.”
The votes are not made public until the season-ending poll.
A day after attending his cousin’s funeral Saturday, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins returned to campus for the first time since being in a car accident Sept. 21 that took Dache Gossett’s life.
“It was really, really good to see him and he spent a little time with his family,” Swinney said. “He looks really good. He’s still got some pretty good scrapes and scabs; he’s pretty beat up. But as far as his arms, legs, organs, all that kind of stuff, he looks good.”
Swinney does not know how long until Watkins returns to football.
He’ll start with hot-tub, cold-tub and underwater-treadmill therapy and rehab, along with plenty of stretching.
“He’s still pretty sore, so I don’t really know if he’ll be available this week or not,” Swinney said. “It’s really going to depend on how he responds to the treatment once we get him down there.”
Swinney opened by calling Saturday’s 49-point victory “definitely our most complete game” in all three phases, despite a fair amount of injuries and suspensions.
“Offensively our best performance of the year, from an execution standpoint,” Swinney said. “Defense continued to improve. It’s becoming more consistent and confident. Really like what we’re doing on third down in particular.
“I think our depth has helped us more on special teams than anywhere. A lot of our young guys have played big roles on special teams.”
Senior tailback Roderick McDowell still has a tender ankle, which rolled Saturday against the Demon Deacons.
“We’ll just see how Hot Rod responds to the treatment this evening, tomorrow and Tuesday,” Swinney said. “My guess is he will be ready to go, but we’ll probably go into the week focused on those other three, because Hot Rod’s probably going to be limited for a couple days.”
Zac Brooks, D.J. Howard and C.J. Davidson combined for 175 total yards of offense Saturday.
The featured play was Howard’s 75-yard catch of a swing pass, racing for his first career receiving touchdown.
“D.J. has gotten healthy,” Swinney said. “The way he finished the game up at N.C. State gave him that boost of confidence for him he needed, because he really finished the game well, then to make some big plays yesterday … was an excellent run.”
Right tackle Gifford Timothy and left guard David Beasley are expected to be back in the fold, though on Clemson’s latest depth chart released Sunday, they are listed as co-starters with right tackle Shaq Anthony and left guard Kalon Davis.