For the first time under Swinney, Tigers have very few holes to fill
When coaching at a school that has so much success and tradition as Clemson, the expectation to win is always high.
Clemson is one the all-time winningest schools in college football. It has won two national championships and has won more conference championships (23) than any other member institution in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
It has been to 42 bowl games dating back to the 1940 Cotton Bowl Classic. Besides the Cotton Bowl it has played in the Orange Bowl Classic six times, the Sugar Bowl twice and the Fiesta Bowl. In other words winning at Clemson is expected regardless of the situation.
However, this season is different than most, especially since the Tigers return a record 61 lettermen from a year ago, including 17 that were starters off last year’s 12-2 team that went to the College Football Playoff for a third straight year.
“The last time I checked, the expectations around here were pretty big,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “They expect us to win no matter what.”
Whether he has 17 starters coming back or none, Swinney said he just embraces every year. He looks at each team different and accepts the challenges that each one brings. In years past, they have had to replace some times seven to eight starters on defense. In other years, they have had to replaces five to six starters on offense.
“This particular year is very unique because we just have not lost a whole lot,” he said. “You are talking about pretty much everybody being back on defense from a good group, and then you added some really good pieces to it.”
Clemson returns eight starters on a defense that led the ACC in scoring, total, rushing and passing defense in 2017. They also ranked second nationally in scoring defense, fourth in total defense and fourth in passing defense. They also led the nation in sacks and finished sixth nationally in total tackles for loss.
“Dorian (O’Daniel) is probably the biggest loss,” Swinney said. “He was a really good football player for us, but we have some guys that played a lot and got some good experience for us and we added some really good pieces with the signing class. We have some guys coming off a redshirt and some freshman that played last year with more experience.”
On the offensive side, Clemson returns seven starters off a unit that was one of the most balanced offense’s Swinney has had and this came a year after having to replace record holders such as Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett.
“We were starting over just about everywhere (last year), and now everybody is back for the most part,” Swinney said. “We have a lot of experienced guys. This is a rare year.
“We are not starting over in the kicking game. Last year, everything was new. Kicker, snapper, holder, you name it. It was new. I would say it is unique to have a team like this. I’m definitely excited about it.”
However, Swinney tempers his enthusiasm just a bit because he knows there are still some challenges this year’s team will face and how they handle those challenges is what will shape them.
One challenge, the Tigers are the overwhelming pick to win their fourth straight ACC Championship. Also, most everyone believes Clemson, along with Alabama, is the odds on favorite to play for and win another national championship.
Then there is the whole quarterback situation between incumbent Kelly Bryant and freshman sensation Trevor Lawrence. How will the team react to whatever the coaches decide?
“How you pull it altogether and the selflessness of the team, the chemistry, the moral, the leadership, how they respond and handle adversity, how the older guys mentor the younger guys and how somebody may respond if a younger guy beats somebody out? Those are all things that you kind of figure out as you go through,” Swinney said. “I know this. It is fun to have a team that does not have a blank look at you. They know what is coming. They know what it takes.
“When you have a team that has so many veterans and they expect to win and they know the philosophy and they know what it takes. They know you have to be focused because you are going to get everybody’s best shot.”
After going 82-15 since 2011, which includes seven straight 10-win seasons, a national championship and four ACC Championships, this is where Clemson is as a program. The expectations are not only to win, but to win big.
“That is kind of where we are as a program and you gave to accept it,” Swinney said. “You have to accept that challenge every single week. You can’t say we have been to three straight playoffs so we are automatically going to be in Charlotte and we are automatically going to be wherever. It does not work that way.
“So, it is good to know you have a group of guys that knows what it takes, but there is still a challenge of keeping them locked in to being the best they can be every single week and every day. I think we have the right mindset with our vets.”
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