By Ed McGranahan.
The lingering, most indelible moment from last season’s game with Auburn was the unbridled, free-range post-game reaction by Dabo Swinney when an ESPN reporter thrust a microphone in his face.
The sheer manic joy wasn’t out of character. Yet it came from a place only a few Clemson fans could truly appreciate.
Auburn fans cringed and seethed.
“I’ll never apologize for being excited about winning,” Swinney said Tuesday. “I’m always going to celebrate a win. If people have a problem with that, that’s their problem.”
Swinney insisted it was his reaction to the moment, beating the defending national champion a year, the team with the nation’s longest winning streak, after losing a year earlier at Auburn in overtime. He also conjured memories of Clemson’s record the previous 60 years.
“You better believe, it was a big deal. I don’t care what the name of the school was. Change the name and give me the same set of circumstances. It’s something to be excited about,” he said. “It was one of the biggest wins in this program in a long time. I thought it gave us the confidence we needed, that this team needed to take the next step.”
Turn the page to final game in the Auburn Trilogy.
Swinney needs this one Saturday in Atlanta for many of the same reasons. How Clemson may respond is as much a mystery to him as it is to you. “I think we’re going to be a work in progress the first few weeks,” he said. Swinney was speaking largely of the offensive line, which ultimately holds the keys to the kingdom this season.
Sure, it would be nice to have Sammy Watkins from the outset, but they had all August to identify alternatives so there shouldn’t be any excuses if the line affords Tajh Boyd adequate time to make reasoned decisions. Under pressure, Boyd was periodically erratic. He worked during the offseason to better handle the inherent pounding. Center Dalton Freeman said he noticed a change in his confidence. Boyd seems to work quicker which makes the offense more efficient.
“There are certain situations where we can’t get any further from an evaluation standpoint until we go under the lights and see how certain guys act and respond,” Swinney said. “There are certain areas on our team where we’re going to be able to gain some valuable knowledge.”
He also wants to see if running backs D.J. Howard and Rod McDowell can be more than emergency backups for Andre Ellington, whose durability remains a question.
He needs to know if defensive end Malliciah Goodman can “take the next step” like Andre Branch or Da’quan Bowers before him. If somebody else along the defensive front takes what he’s shown at practice to the Georgia Dome field and becomes a big-time playmaker.
“Who’s going to emerge as the media darling or whatever based on performance? I have no idea.”
Compounding the vagaries are new Auburn offensive and defensive coordinators. There’s so little to learn from looking at the first two games in the trilogy.
One constant is Swinney, defending conference champion and national coach of the year. An unabashed dreamer who didn’t care the cameras rolled last September.
“People say, oh, he’s an Alabama guy. He’s excited about beating Auburn.
“I was excited,” he said. “I get fired up when we win.
“I won’t apologize.”