Count Dabo Swinney among those who likes the fact that Clemson is starting its season against the caliber of opponent that could put the Tigers on either side of the scoreboard once it’s over.
Clemson and Georgia are both consensus top-5 preseason teams heading into their opening clash Saturday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. In fact, it’s the kind of marquee opener that’s rarely been played on a national scale as of late.
Only a handful of times over the last two decades have two top-5 teams opened their seasons against each other. The last time it happened? Alabama against Florida State to kick off the 2017 season.
But Swinney said his program is embracing the early challenge. That’s because, win or lose, it’s going to serve as a much more accurate barometer of where Clemson is as opposed to playing a team the Tigers could simply overwhelm.
“We can learn a lot that sometimes may takes you two or three games, and (Georgia coach) Kirby (Smart) would probably say the same thing,” Swinney said. “Sometimes you can play two or three games with a talented roster and maybe not quite know as much. So I think this is one of the blessings of playing a game like this.”
Swinney is confident in not only the talent of his team but also the depth at many positions on the Tigers’ roster, including a defensive line that’s had seven different players start a game, a receiver position that has star Justyn Ross back in the fold and an offensive line where the Tigers have cross-trained their share of players in order to give themselves as many viable options as possible there.
But Swinney also spent part of his weekly press conference Tuesday praising the opposition, specifically pointing out Georgia’s unique size along the defensive line — “(Jordan Davis) and (Devonte Wyatt) are pros,” Swinney said — as well as his impressions of Georgia quarterback J.T. Daniels, who, much like Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, is getting his share of Heisman Trophy buzz heading into the season.
Swinney said Daniels has the arm talent to test Clemson’s secondary if he gets comfortable in the pocket, which makes taking the Bulldogs out of their element offensively important for Clemson’s defense.
“They’re going to get off the bus running the football and play-action,” Swinney said. “There’s not a lot of drinking and dunking going on. They’ve got a great screen game they will manipulate you with, but they want to run the football and they want to get the ball over the top of you. And this quarterback has the ability to do it, and the receivers as well.”
Whichever team can have more success establishing the line of scrimmage, Swinney said, will go a long way toward determining the winner. Clemson still hasn’t decided on a starting center among Mason Trotter, Hunter Rayburn and Matt Bockhorst, who could slide over from his left guard spot.
At least, Swinney isn’t revealing the coaching staff’s choice there publicly if it’s been already been made. He even said the Tigers may use multiple centers Saturday night, which Swinney added is part of more quality depth he believes his offensive line has going into a matchup of this magnitude.
“Last year, if we had been going into this game, we would’ve had five guys, and we would’ve been saying, well, maybe Walker Parks could go in there and play a series in a game like this right out of the gate,” Swinney said. “But I think we’ve got more guys that we can put in there in the heat of the battle in a game like this, function and get the job done for us.”
That’s just one of the many thoughts Swinney has about his team going into the opener. Unlike other years, though, Swinney said there’s no doubt he’ll have a much better gauge after this one of whether reality lines up with those thoughts given the caliber of opponent that will be waiting on the other sideline.
“This is two really talented teams, and so where do we need to improve technically? Where do we need to improve fundamentally? Where do we need to improve mentally?” Swinney said. “Whatever it is, you’ll come out of the game with a lot to work on. Whether you win it or lose it, there’s going to be a lot to really work on with this team.
“This is a big-boy football game right out of the gate, and it’s fun. I’m excited to get to see them on tape and then go on from that as we go.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!