Despite all the high praise from guys like ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit and Paul Finebaum, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney says his 2017 team is in the same place the 2016 team was when some of the same people praising the second-ranked Tigers this year were criticizing them last year.
For the third straight season, Clemson has opened a new year 3-0. But after beating No. 15 Auburn and No. 20 Louisville in back-to-back weeks, many, like Herbstreit, consider the Tigers to be the best team in college football through the first three weeks of the season.
“That’s great, it really is,” Swinney said. “But we are kind of in the same spot we were in last year. Last year, everybody was talking about how bad we were. It’s just amazing.”
Last year, Clemson, who will host Boston College at 3:30 p.m. in Death Valley on Saturday, opened the season with a six-point win at Auburn, but struggled to beat Troy the next week before blowing out S.C. State in Week 3.
“We go to Auburn for a nine o’clock road game opener and we win 19-13 and it is ‘what is wrong with the team,’” Swinney said. “‘They’re terrible. We should have killed them.’ Then we beat a good Louisville team, but nobody wanted to give us any credit for winning.
“It was what’s wrong with our team and this and that.”
Swinney credits the differences to expectations. Clemson was one of the favorites to win the national championship last year, which it ultimately did. It had a veteran offense returning, led by Heisman Trophy hopeful Deshaun Watson. The expectations were extremely high in 2016.
This year, though the Tigers entered the season ranked 5th in the preseason polls, the expectations were low because of the departure of Watson, Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman, Artavis Scott and Jordan Leggett.
“The expectations were so low by a lot of outside people, and then all of sudden we play well, and still made a lot of mistakes, but the perception is so different, which is interesting to me,” Swinney said. “We are 3-0 like we were last year, and I think we are a good team. But we are not a championship team, yet. We have a long way to go.”
Swinney says they have a lot of young players that still have to develop. They have some areas on the team where they have to be more disciplined. They have to protect their quarterback better.
“There are a lot of things we have to improve on,” Swinney said. “I think we are a good team and we are one of the teams that have a chance, which is where you want to be, but we are just 3-0.
“I appreciate the complements and all that stuff, but we have to keep our nose to the grindstone and handle our business. That is what we have to do because you don’t win it in September.”
Swinney’s message to his team this week is this. He has seen a lot of teams anointed in September and everybody is looking to see where they are in November and they’re gone.
“We just have to keep climbing and keep handling our business and keep getting better,” Swinney said. “We have to stay focused. Don’t get distracted by the big picture. Stay locked in to what we are doing week in and week out. If we do that, and we get a break here and a break there, then we might have a chance.”