The state of the defending national champions, 43 days before it opens at home against Georgia Tech, was hardly what you’d call drumhead tight. Untroubled is the head that wears the crown. This day, at the ACC Football Kickoff, that head also was wearing a long blond wig. So, yeah, Clemson is very secure in who and what it is.
In response to some carping that the Tigers weren’t bringing to this interview-palooza the one player everyone wanted hear – quarterback Trevor Lawrence – the team instead brought the world’s worst stunt double. As he worked the room Wednesday, senior offensive lineman John Simpson occasionally topped his 6-4, 330-pound self with the wig, approximating Lawrence’s flowing do. What Simpson really looked like was a Clydesdale in drag.
It was all Dabo Swinney’s idea, proving once more that the high ground in college football is now held by someone distinctly more charismatic than Nick Saban.
“I think our quarterback power-run game just got better. I can’t wait to see that guy run the ball,” the Clemson coach joked.
When the Yellow Jackets visit Clemson on Aug. 29 – the Geoff Collins Era at Tech opens with a sacrificial bloodletting – they will not be met by a team that is in any way unprepared for another championship run.
Given the coaching change at Tech, there will be some unfamiliarity with what the Yellow Jackets might run, especially on offense. I think Clemson might be able to adjust.
“I’m going to miss ol’ Paul. I really like Paul Johnson,” Swinney said of the fellow Collins replaced. “He’s one of the best. I will certainly miss competing against him. I will not miss the triple option.”
The Tigers appear quite capable of carrying last season’s unbeaten streak at least through the regularly scheduled 2019.
As well as all the other challenges Tech will face on that opening night, it will be at a severe emotional disadvantage, too. They are scheduled to unveil the team’s 2018 championship stadium sign that night – rings were already handed out in the spring – so the static charge in the stands will be even greater.
As for any thought that success has softened Clemson, made it somehow complacent and vulnerable, Swinney will fight back with any number of pithy, suitable-for-framing maxims. Note the ones he broke out Wednesday:
“In every sense of the word, we start over. Reset. Refocus. And reinstall the program.”
“Greatness never goes on sale. You got to pay full price every year.
“If you love the ‘Rocky’ movies there’s this – we live modern, but we train old. That’s a mindset so you don’t lose perspective.”
“Like our strength coach says, they don’t put championship rings on smooth hands. You got to put the work in.”
“The quality of the construction is based on the commitment of the crew.”
Swinney didn’t run out of words Wednesday, he just ran out of time.
The Tigers just don’t seem bored yet with their place in the ACC food chain. Six different teams have won the ACC Coastal the past six years. Only Clemson has won the Atlantic the past four – as well as the past four ACC Championship games. The past two of those, Clemson has won by a combined score of 80-13.
The coach comes prepared with a defense for the conference he rules. “The rhetoric used to be that an ACC team is never going to be national champion because they don’t play anybody. So, when they get to postseason against the big, bad boys, they can’t beat the best,” Swinney said. “Well, now, we win it, and the only reason we win it is because we don’t play anybody. You can’t have it both ways.”
They are conceding nothing, especially along a defensive line that entered the NFL’s transfer portal en masse. (Meanwhile, the offense, with Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne, an offensive line that doesn’t normally dress in wigs and a cache of prototype pass-catchers, is frightening).
“Christian (Wilkins) was a freshman at one time. Dexter (Lawrence) was a freshman at one time. Clelin (Ferrell) was a freshman at one time,” Swinney said, rattling off the Clemson D-lineman who were taken in the first 17 picks of this year’s draft. “That’s the way it is. I love the talent that we have. We can’t replace the experience, that takes time.
“When it’s all said and done we’ll run a good group out there.”
And, as was demonstrated Wednesday, above all else Clemson will not enter another season of great expectation nervous in any way.
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