The circumstances do not permit Dabo Swinney to come off message. He cannot wobble, not even slightly. His words are gospel, and every person vested in the Clemson football program listens for their cues.
At the appropriate moment this week, perhaps shortly before 8 o’clock Saturday evening, with Death Valley swaying in the summer heat, he’ll launch into an impassioned plea for his players’ best. It won’t be the typical pregame sermon because Clemson football has come to the crossroad in a journey it might not see again soon.
If ever there’s been a moment since that January night in 1982 for Clemson football to seize its destiny, this game — albeit the first of 12 on the schedule — might be the biggest. There might never again be a Tajh Boyd and a Sammy Watkins on the same Clemson team. Nor might there ever be the confluence of coaches and players, the chemistry and bond that stoke the anticipation for a season of ultimate promise.
Swinney has gone “all in” with the first hand, and with the national championship game scheduled for Pasadena this season, South Beach this season would be a consolation prize. The wives of Clemson’s coaches are already planning a shopping trip to Rodeo Drive.
Still, he must choose his words carefully lest they misunderstand.
“At the end of the day, it’s just an opener,” Swinney said. “I know it’s a monster game, and — trust me — we all get that. But it’s just an opener.”
“Our goals are much bigger than an opener.”
During that great decade with Danny Ford at the helm, when the national championship was less history and more of a recent memory, Clemson-Georgia frequently defined the season. In 11 games from 1979 to 1990, the series split down the middle 5-5-1, with eight decided by no more than seven points.
Swinney, as a player and later as an assistant coach at Alabama, became well-versed on Clemson football long before his relationships with former Ford coaches and players such as Woody McCorvey, Bill Oliver and Danny Pearman led him to come to the Upstate. McCorvey and Pearman have his ear as members of the current Clemson staff, so the reminders are never far away.
“I’ve probably heard more and know more from the guys in the 80s than any other decade,” he said. Reminded that his first game as a Clemson assistant in 2003 was a 30-0 thrashing by Georgia, Swinney winced. “I try to forget that. I just about had filed that away.”
Virtually every discussion presumes this year’s game is destined to be more Django than John Cena and The Rock in a cage match.
Swinney joked that it might wind up 6-3.
“As far as a shootout I don’t know,” Swinney said. “Both teams are capable of scoring.
“Ultimately in game like this, when it’s evenly matched, it comes down to turnovers, whoever makes the most mistakes, field position, those types of things
“You don’t have a lot of room for error. If we were playing another team that we were more physical than, we could probably make a lot of mistakes and still overcome it.”
Clemson’s last game was a win against a nationally prominent SEC team, a supreme test of his team’s resilience, coming back from a fourth down and 16 late in the game. Swinney was asked if there was anything to draw from the experience.
Strategically, no, he said.
“The margin for error to win a game like that is very small,” he said. “You’ve got to handle the adversity. There’s always adversity. You can’t put your head down, pout and get caught up in it. You’ve just got to keep playing.”
When it’s over and the smoke clears, there will still be 11 more games on the schedule, and what seemed epic on Friday becomes fodder Sunday for ESPN Classic.
“Regardless of what it ends up on the scoreboard, we’re going to learn a lot about our team,” Swinney said. “We’re going to grow from it and get better.”