Ten years ago, I hopped on an elevator at the ACC Kickoff when they still held it at the Grandover in Greensboro, N.C. Heading up to my hotel room after a long day of golf, player interviews, and a pretty awesome cocktail hour, I heard the type of footsteps that are reserved only for people rushing to catch an elevator they know they likely won’t catch.
Feeling generous, I stuck my foot in front of the door, and was greeted by Dabo Swinney and his wife, Kathleen. At 21 years old and at my first media event, a few whiskeys and some brash naivete encouraged me to talk Dabo’s ear off about how great it was that he had earned the full-time position at Clemson after being an interim coach, and that I hoped the best for him because “the ACC needed it.”
Two years ago, I ran across him on escalators going opposite ways at the same event in Charlotte. He gave me a nod of recognition, and turned around and shouted back at me, “hey man, the ACC needs to slow down!”
Next time I see Dabo, I’m telling him North Carolina is the sport’s next dynasty, because our brief interactions apparently become gospel.
Clemson, perpetual underachiever, broke through in 2011 with new offensive coordinator Chad Morris, winning the ACC and finishing 10-4 after Swinney opened his Clemson tenure 15-12.
After giving up 70 points to West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl, Swinney went out and got Brent Venables to coach his defense. While Morris has moved on, Venables is still there, commanding a $2 million annual salary.
After losing 16 games in his first three seasons at the helm, Swinney has lost eleven total in the seven years since. As for the ACC slowing down....well, there’s nobody, North Carolina included, that’s going to stop the Tigers this year.
The good news: Clemson lost a defensive line of NFL talent— Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, and Christian Wilkins were first-round picks in this year’s draft, and Austin Bryant inexplicably fell to the fourth.
The bad news: more snaps for Justin Foster, Xavier Thomas, K.J. Henry, and a slew of other extremely highly-recruited guys.
With talents such as Isaiah Simmons, A.J. Terrell, K’Von Wallace, and a bunch of untested blue-chippers, the back seven should be fine while the front four reloads. And they have some margin for error, because the Clemson offense could very well put up 38 points a game with the Tar Heel Blog staff coaching it.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is the NFL prototype. Tall, strong, accurate, and somewhat mobile, I believe he would’ve been the first pick in the 2019 draft were he eligible. After an offensive lull in the immediate post-Deshaun Watson era, the move from Kelly Bryant to Lawrence got the Tigers back on the “we’re going to score 50 without thinking about it” train. Having Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins at wideout didn’t hurt. Having an offensive line that paved the way for 6.6 yards per rush in 2018 wasn’t bad, either.
Returning four of those starters, AND running back Travis Etienne (who averaged EIGHT POINT ONE yards per carry on his way to 1658 yards and 24 touchdowns as a sophomore)?
This is the best offense in college football, full stop. Their defense under Venables will be the best in the ACC, and among the 10-15 best in the country.
If only they didn’t coach up and retain players better than any team in the country, too.
They also coach up and retain players better than any team in the country.
I’ll say this: Clemson is not going to be afforded the opportunity to sleepwalk through the early part of its schedule. They’ll have played the two trickiest games on their schedule before the Autumnal Equinox.
After opening with a made-for-ACC-Network home win over Georgia Tech, the Tigers welcome Texas A&M (whom they beat by two points in College Station last year). Insert Jimbo vs. Dabo tropes here. After that, they go to Syracuse, who beat Clemson in the Carrier Dome in 2017, and...well...absolutely should have beaten them again in Death Valley last year.
If they survive those two, it opens up. They get Charlotte at home the next week, which means they’ll be studying tape on Carolina heading into week 4, despite the fact that they don’t play the Heels until week 5 (they have a bye after their trip to Chapel Hill, so we miss “emotional letdown” potential twice).
After the bye, they get to bury Florida State, rudely welcome Scott Satterfield to the ACC, and host Boston College in what maybe their closest October game.
After that, they keep it in the Carolinas— Wofford, at N.C. State, Wake, and at South Carolina to close.
MAYBE they squeak by A&M or Syracuse, maybe they go -5 in turnovers in Chapel Hill...but its not overwhelmingly likely that these Tigers lose a football game in the regular season.
I don’t make it my purpose to speak this glowingly of Carolina opponents, but, my word. What a damn impressive football team.
Carolina hosted the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson, when Louisville visited in 2017. They last played the current season’s Heisman winner when they traveled to Florida State and lost to Chris Weinke’s Seminoles, 63-14.
The last time Carolina hosted that season’s Heisman winner was 1993, when Charlie Ward’s Seminoles came to Chapel Hill and beat the 14th-ranked Heels 33-7.
If the Heels open 4-0 and are ranked 14th in the country heading into the Clemson game, I’ll HAPPILY take another 33-7 beatdown at the hands of a Heisman winner. The Heels likely won’t be 4-0 and ranked 14th in the country heading into this game, and they’ll still likely get their tails kicked by a Heisman winner in Trevor Lawrence.
Like I said— get me in a room with Dabo so I can have another prescient conversation with him. This time I’ll say, “Carolina football needs to step up”, and so it will be.
This game will be a benchmark for the program in what it needs to do to reach those heights.