As Clemson goes through a season that’s fallen well short of expectations for various reasons, Dabo Swinney’s program has been on the receiving end of plenty of consternation and criticism from the Tigers’ fan base and beyond.
Swinney has taken a couple of opportunities to address fans’ concerns this week before Clemson (4-3, 3-2 ACC) tries to stay above .500 against Florida State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. After discussing the state of the program and emphatically stating his belief that Clemson “ain’t going nowhere” during a local radio interview, Swinney further expanded on his message to fans through the media Wednesday amid a season where the negatives have far outweighed the positives.
The struggles of an offense that’s on pace to be worst statistically in Swinney’s 13 years at the helm have gotten to the point that Swinney has alluded to an open quarterback competition between D.J. Uiagalelei and his backup, Taisun Phommachanh, though Uiagalelei was still listed at the top of Clemson’s updated depth chart released earlier in the week. Meanwhile, attrition continues to pile up.
Offensive lineman Matt Bockhorst (torn ACL against Pitt) is the latest contributor lost to a season-ending injury. Clemson has lost 14 scholarship players since the start of the season to injuries or transfers.
There’s also been starters being unavailable because of COVID-19 protocols on an almost weekly basis. Swinney said he’s hopeful offensive lineman Hunter Rayburn and leading receiver Joseph Ngata will be able to return against the Seminoles, but the backfield was dealt another blow this week with Kobe Pace out, leaving true freshmen Will Shipley (who just returned from a leg injury last week) and Phil Mafah as the top two running backs for now.
It all has a program that’s made six straight College Football Playoff appearances out of the playoff discussion before November. And playing for a seventh straight ACC championship won’t happen either unless the Tigers win out and get some help along the way.
“I know everybody’s disappointed. We’re supposed to go to the playoff every year, win this league every year and have a 10-plus win season every year, but it’s hard to win,” Swinney said. “Hopefully we can all reset and have a deep appreciation of how hard it is. We can’t just show up and win. It’s a reset with this team, but there are a lot of things that go into winning and the margin for error is very small all the time, especially with where we are this year and a lot of the challenges that we’ve had.
“The message is we’ve got a great group of young men, a great staff, and it’s been an incredible journey for 13 years. This is one season in the midst of an unbelievable journey. When this chapter is over, if they let me leave on my terms or they send me to the pasture, whenever that is, we’ll look back on this year and it’ll be a blessing.”
Swinney kept going.
“The biggest thing is keep the faith. Get behind these coaches and get behind this team. They’re working their butts off. Everybody is. Everybody wants to be undefeated. We’ve got to quit worrying about what we can’t do, and we need to get excited about what we still can do. That’s what winners do. We’ve got to keep fighting, we’ve got to keep moving forward, and we’ve got to stay together.”
As for the criticism coming from outside the fan base, Swinney said he’s not concerned about it even though it continues to come in waves. Radio personality Paul Finebaum called the Tigers’ result against Pitt over the weekend a “seismic loss” and has opined Clemson’s dynasty under Swinney is over. Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer this week publicly scolded Clemson’s coaching staff for its development of Uiagalelei, calling it “probably the most egregious thing I’ve ever seen.”
Swinney said he doesn’t listen to those sorts of specific criticisms of his program from people on the outside, but he had a general message for them, too.
“Go ahead. Get it in while you can,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”
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