CLEMSON — Atmosphere continues to envelope Clemson like fog off the lake.
“There’ll be people rolling in here tomorrow just to smell the campus,” Dabo Swinney said Tuesday during the first of the season’s weekly media briefings.
The challenge this week is maintaining a measure of normalcy even though Saturday night’s game with Georgia bears the trappings of something far more than a typical season opener. Two top-10 teams on primetime national TV with ESPN GameDay on campus for the first time in seven years serve to heighten the anticipation.
“People are excited. I think that’s great,” Swinney said. “People care. It’s important. They love it.”
“Our players aren’t immune to that,” he said. “All of this stuff is fun, it’s great. You can draw energy from it, but you can’t let it be a distraction.”
Swinney joked he’ll keep the team handcuffed and blindfolded in a dungeon until kickoff Saturday. In truth, he has relied principally on the 10 scholarship seniors to shepherd the team through the noise.
“We have a lot of guys back that have been through the battles the last few years,” he said. “They have a good foundation, their feet on the ground. I don’t think they’ve been swept up by the clutter and the noise out there.”
No. 5 Georgia comes to Death Valley for the first time in 10 years a slim favorite against a tidal wave of emotion fueled by the presence Danny Ford, coach of the 1981 national championship team who will be inducted into the Ring of Honor during pregame. Serving as honorary captain will be former quarterback Homer Jordan and kicker David Treadwell, both significant players in wins against Georgia under Ford when, during a 11-year stretch, the series was split 5-5-1.
Much of Clemson’s anticipation hinges on the return of quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins. Boyd walked away from a potential pro career to play in games like this and the bowl win against LSU last January.
Swinney cautions against the presumptive notion that, with two starters returning on defense, Georgia might be vulnerable.
“A lot of new faces,” he said, “but don’t buy the lie and feel.
“They’re just one of those programs that reloads.”
As significant as the game can be to the big picture, Swinney does not anticipate perfection the first week. Despite his confidence in the defensive front seven against Georgia backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, the secondary could be vulnerable to the whim of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. While this could become trench warfare, it won’t come without more than a few bombs from two richly talented quarterbacks.
“Both teams have very little room for error, but we’re going to grow these first few weeks,” Swinney said. “We’ve got a lot to prove as a football team.
“It’s a long season, and I don’t think you can get all your answers — win the game or lose the game — with your opening game.”
Additionally, he reminded, a win would fulfill only the first of the five perennial team goals. Talk of furthering the league’s reputation was not part of the equation.
“We’ve got 12 games on our schedule, and every opponent is critical,” Swinney said. “We’ve got much bigger goals than our opening game.
“In a game like this, we’ve got to be careful because it’s not a win-all, end-all type of deal. It’s a long season,” he said.
“Anything can happen.”
Notes: TE Jordan Leggett (knee) and QB Chad Kelly (knee) could be available after beating the odds in their recoveries. Leggett could be another big weapon in the passing game. Kelly, who battled Cole Stoudt to back up Boyd, tore an ACL in the spring game less than five months ago. “Amazing,” Swinney said of Kelly’s rapid recovery. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” … Kelly ran the scout team as Murray ... Definitely out are RB Tyshon Dye (back), CB MacKensie Alexander (groin), OL Joe Gore (knee), DT Joe Pagano and TE Sam Cooper (knee). ... RB C.J. Davidson received a scholarship.