Vindication for Dabo Swinney comes with winning.
If there’s evidence that he carries grudges, it’s disguised by the big smile, the inspirational rhetoric and the stiff dance moves.
Those five straight losses to South Carolina are on him. Needled by former USC coach Steve Spurrier, Swinney showed he was willing to dish smack, so they struck an accord rather than allow it to further incite the acrimony between fans, played it for laughs and he took one back.
Swinney insisted, not quite convincingly, he doesn’t bother himself with the coach on the other sideline. Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops, Brian Kelly, Jimbo Fisher, Steve Spurrier or Shawn Elliott – it doesn’t matter.
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After Scott Shafer cursed at Swinney during Clemson’s first game at Syracuse, he found common ground, won a new friend and beat him three times. Karma can be brutal.
Swinney empathized with Elliott. Been there, done that. Interim coaches don’t have much shelf life anyway, so there’s no need to embarrass him. In a similar position seven years ago, nobody took pity on him. But after it became his team, Clemson won four of its final seven games and altered the course of the program. Elliott’s team has gone 1-4, and it’s safe to say Gamecock Nation isn’t “all in.”
Swinney isn’t into “beauty pageant” wins. In 2012, Clemson scored 62 in an epic shootout between quarterback Tajh Boyd and N.C. State’s Mike Glennon. Twice his teams scored 59, in 2011 against North Carolina and 2013 against Virginia.
The 58-0 win at Miami this fall was an aberration, and Swinney was bothered that it cost Al Golden his job. He tried to pump the brakes, using every player that made the trip, but backup quarterback Kelly Bryant and reserve safety Van Smith had career days.
If Bryant plays today, it should be in late relief or in the package that pushes Deshaun Watson to wide receiver. Watson might not be the best player South Carolina has faced this season, but Georgia’s Nick Chubb hasn’t touched a ball in more than a month and LSU’s Leonard Fournette hasn’t been enough to keep the jackals off coach Les Miles.
Watson was “all right” on one healthy knee last season, passing for two touchdowns and running for two to beat the Gamecocks, and he’s forced himself into the Heisman conversation by remaining stout behind a retooled offensive line with five new starters, including freshman left tackle Mitch Hyatt.
Since the stakes are higher, Swinney won’t expose the franchise any more than necessary, which should keep the final score modest. Regardless of what happens today, Clemson plays North Carolina next week for the ACC Championship, the same team South Carolina defeated the first week of this season.
Watson could be one of the marquee personalities in a College Football Playoff that does not apologize for weighing every variable in the selection process. How appealing would Oklahoma be without quarterback Baker Mayfield, or Alabama without running back Derrick Henry?
Four times this season, Watson was named ACC offensive back of the week. He was national player of the week twice and this week he reached No. 2 in ESPN’s Heisman watch behind Henry. Watson has been No. 1 in the SI.com list for three weeks and seems at least assured a trip to New York for the presentation show. Two more big games – two more Clemson wins – and it’s anybody’s guess.
Though he’s thrown 10 interceptions, Watson’s passing efficiency ranks fourth nationally. He has completed 70 percent of his passes for 26 touchdowns and rushed for 642 yards for seven touchdowns.
Watson’s leadership cannot be quantified, but it has been evident to his teammates, coaches and several former Heisman winners who understand the game’s nuances.
His performance in last year’s game with South Carolina at home was the stuff of legends – playing on a torn ACL with a cumbersome brace. Watson shrugged this week when asked about it. His coach was far more impressed.
“I’d never seen anything like that,” said Swinney. “It was just incredible.”
Winning remains the first goal, keeping Watson healthy would be the second, but beating South Carolina – with or without Spurrier – would be sweet on a couple of levels. It would be his third win of the Tigers’ rival, Clemson’s 12th win of the season –matching the total by the 1981 national championship team – and ultimately vindication of those who criticize an ACC schedule.
“We’re not going to worry about going undefeated and not going to the party,” Swinney said. “If we can finish, nobody can say anything about our schedule.”
Swinney pointed to the program’s steady improvement, the nation’s longest win streak (14 games), the wins during that stretch over last year’s South Carolina team, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Florida State.
“Because of the success, some of those perceptions have changed,” he said. “Now it’s a different conversation. Nobody can say anything to us.”
They might, still, but Spurrier won't be in the stadium on Saturday, and it won't keep Swinney from dancing.
Tigers vs. Gamecocks
Who: Clemson (11-0) at South Carolina (3-8)
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium
Radio: 107.5 and 93.1
Satellite radio: Sirius 119/XM 190
Line: Clemson by 18 1/2
Series history: Clemson leads 66-42-4