By Will Vandervort
It was five years ago Sunday Dabo Swinney was on the practice fields behind the Jervey Athletic Center, and really had no idea what had just happened.
Several hours earlier he had been handed the keys to the Clemson football program by former athletic director Terry Don Phillips following the resignation of then head coach Tommy Bowden at mid-season. The program seemed to be in disarray at the time, but Swinney, as the acting interim head coach, guided the Tigers to a 4-2 finish to the regular season and a berth in the Gator Bowl, which led to the interim tag being removed from his title.
Now flash forward five years later and he leads his fifth Clemson team into Death Valley for its first matchup between two top 5 teams when the third-ranked Tigers host No. 5 Florida State next Saturday at 8 p.m. on ABC.
“It is just awesome to be where we are,” Swinney said during his regular Sunday teleconference with the media. “I’m very humbled by what God has done in my life and the opportunities I have had to be here at Clemson. It is really neat five years later to be where we are and to have an opportunity to be relevant, again.”
But Swinney and the Tigers (6-0, 4-0 ACC) are in no way satisfied with where they are. Sitting at No. 3 in the latest Associated Press top 25 as well as No. 3 in the Harris Poll, Clemson has an opportunity to place itself into serious talk about playing for a national championship with a second win this year over a top 5 team.
The Tigers opened the season with a 38-35 victory over then No. 5 Georgia, a Bulldogs team that had all of its weapons at the time. The Seminoles, who had the weekend off, moved up to No. 5 in the polls following then No. 5 Stanford’s loss to Utah Saturday night.
“Obviously, we know we have a very tough challenge with Florida State,” Swinney said. “They are the best team we have seen. There is not a lot of room for error in a game like this. But that is what makes it fun. We look forward to preparing for it.”
Clemson will have to prepare for a Florida State offense that leads the ACC in scoring and total yards and is second in rushing yards per game. It will also be interesting to see how the Tigers handle FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, who leads the ACC in passing efficiency and is second to Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in passing yards and total offense.
Winston, a redshirt freshman, has thrown for 1,441 yards and 17 touchdowns with only two interceptions in his first five games as a starting quarterback, while completing 73 percent of his passes.
“I know they list him as a redshirt freshman, but he does not look like any freshman that I have seen,” Swinney said. “He is a special player. I followed Jameis for a while. We grew up 20 to 25 miles apart from each other…
“I know who he is and I have watched him since he was in the ninth grade or so. He has been a great player his whole life. He is not playing like a freshman. He is playing like a savvy veteran. Heck, he is playing like a Heisman guy. So he is a huge, huge challenge. He has a big arm, is very confident and poised. He is a great runner. He has a great feel for the game.”