When playing in a big game, such as the College Football Playoff semifinal against No. 3 Ohio State at the Fiesta Bowl, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney likes to keep things close to the vest.
But as the Tigers begin preparations on Monday for the New Year’s Eve playoff game against the Buckeyes, Swinney has displayed a sense of confidence he has not shown in years past.
“We are a better team right now than we were in the national championship game. And there are a couple of reasons,” he said on ESPN’s Championship Drive Show prior to Saturday’s Heisman Trophy Presentation Show.
This time last year, the Tigers were the top team in the country and were undefeated at 13-0. This year, Clemson heads in the CFP with a 12-1 mark and are the No. 2 team in the country. So how is this year’s team better than last year’s?
Swinney mentioned his team is physically in better shape heading into the playoff. The Tigers played 10 straight games to close the 2015 regular season and physically limped into the playoff.
“We got through it but we were on fumes,” Swinney said. “This team right now is playing close to its best football.”
Swinney is right. Clemson struggled at the end of last season to close out wins against bad teams such a Wake Forest and South Carolina before nearly running out of gas in the ACC Championship Game against North Carolina, needing a botched onside kick attempt to secure the victory.
This year, the Tigers routed Wake Forest and South Carolina, which were much better teams than they were last year, and then went and won the ACC Championship Game against Virginia Tech as they made a key defensive stand at the end, while picking up a crucial first down in the final minute to run the clock out.
“I think we have more competitive depth. We went into the playoff (last year) and we were Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and everybody else was a freshman. We were Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson and everybody else was a freshman,” Swinney said. “We have more guys that can function for us and play winning football than we had last year, way more.”
A great example of that was the loss of Mackensie Alexander in the national championship game last year. After Alexander left the game with a torn hamstring, O.J. Howard and Alabama went off on the Tigers, one of the keys in the Crimson Tide’s five-point win over the Tigers.
“This year we have more depth and more competition in practice and that brings a sense of urgency in meetings and so forth,” Swinney said.
Clemson also has Deon Cain this time around. He was suspended for failing a drug test in last year’s College Football Playoff. Also guys like Ray Ray McCloud, Trevion Thompson and Hunter Renfrow are a year older and wiser.
“Those guys are all sophomores now,” Swinney said. “Mitch Hyatt was a freshman at left tackle. Now all of those guys are older. We are more complete at running back. We have more functional depth there. Jordan Leggett is just a more complete player than he was this time last year.
“And then the mentality of they have been there. They are hungry for it.”