Clemson opened fall camp on Tuesday, and for the first time under coach Dabo Swinney, most of the Tigers know what it takes to play for a national title.
There is an unquestionable sense of confidence around the defending ACC champions, who are expected to again compete for the conference title and national championship.
“The biggest thing is just the experience,” Dabo Swinney said of what this team has as compared with others in the past. “It’s one thing to dream about something. It’s another thing to experience it. It’s one thing to think you’re good enough. It’s another thing to know you are.”
Swinney spoke to a record crowd of media members before the first day of fall practice and was as enthusiastic as ever to get the season started.
He said there was no hangover effect this offseason from coming so close to winning the national title. Instead, Swinney believes the Tigers are as hungry as ever to get the season started.
“They’ve had a sense of urgency from day one that has not changed. It has not changed from anything we’ve done. I’ve never had to say, ‘Hey, let’s go.’ When I walk into the meetings, they’re ready. They’ve had a sense of urgency all summer,” he said. “They’ve had, maybe, a little different edge to them. Early on I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but then I just think this is a group that’s got a different experience to draw from than other teams have.”
Now the challenge is getting back to that point and getting over the hump.
Clemson had the same five goals the past several seasons, goals Swinney believed, if accomplished, would deliver the Tigers a national championship.
The five goals were win the opener, win the division, win the state championship, win the ACC and win the bowl game. Clemson accomplished all five goals last year but still fell one victory short of the national title, so the goals have been tweaked for 2016 and beyond.
“We had to change it this year. We changed it to win the closer,” Swinney said. “When we wrote those goals in 2009 it was win the bowl game. I always said if we hit all five of those goals in one year we’re going to hit the national championship. They changed the rules on me. We hit all five of them last year, but then we had to go win another one.”
On paper, this might be Clemson’s most talented team during Swinney’s tenure, but he warned that games are not won on paper.
But, he said, the talent is there for the Tigers to win it all.
“I think it’s a good team. We’ve got a good roster. We don’t have any excuses,” he said.
Offensively, Clemson can be an all-time great unit, but, defensively, the Tigers enter the season with question marks, most notably at defensive end and defensive back.
Clemson has to replace both starting defensive ends and three of the four members of the secondary.
Swinney is most concerned about defensive end, because, despite the lack of experience, he believes the defensive backs have the speed and skill to be productive.
“There’s nothing that keeps me up at night, but I think we’ve got some fill-in-the-blank spots. I think defensive end is probably the biggest position,” he said. “We’re young and inexperienced at defensive end, and we haven’t been in that situation. It’s been a while.”
Swinney is thrilled for the season to begin so he can see just what pieces he has to work with.
“This is my favorite part of my job,” he said. “I love football. I love coaching. I love game-planning. I love teaching. I love being with the players every day. … I love the grind of the season. This is the best part of the year for me, just getting back to the roots of doing what I love to do.”