Dabo Swinney heard the pundits during the offseason.
After losing all those defensive starters, faced with rebuilding the offensive line and relying on so many first-year players, this Clemson football team was probably a year away from making its mark in college football.
“Right? We’re still a year away from being a good team. That was the rhetoric this summer,” Swinney said Tuesday. “I’m glad our team didn’t buy into that.”
After running through the schedule, top-ranked and unbeaten Clemson will play Saturday night for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship in Charlotte and a potential College Football Playoff berth.
“I felt our team could be pretty good this year based on what I saw in practice every day and what I saw in the locker room, how these guys trained, how much they cared,” said Swinney, voted ACC Football Coach of the Year.
He received 27 of the 50 votes cast by members of the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association (ACSMA), outpolling North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, who had 21. Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi received the others.
Riding the nation’s longest active winning streak at 15 games, Clemson’s season has included wins against No. 6 Notre Dame and No. 16 Florida State. Now, only Fedora’s eighth-ranked team stands between the Tigers and the national semifinals.
Swinney didn’t want his team to miss any of it this season, so he looked for opportunities and frequently reminded them to enjoy the entire ride.
“I’ve tried to be purposeful in making sure that these guys are having some fun, and making sure that these guys are enjoying the moment,” Swinney said. “I think it would be very, very sad to have a season like we had and not enjoy the journey.”
Swinney was a walk-on wide receiver at Alabama who earned a scholarship and played on a national championship team. Frequently, he recalls an anecdote or a moment from those years and talks about them in great detail.
“I’ve been there. I’ve won a national championship,” he said. “You win a national championship and it fades that quickly. It’s gone.”
After starting at No. 12 in the preseason media and coaches’ polls, Clemson first appeared at No. 1 in the College Football Playoff top 25 after winning its eighth game. The next week, the Tigers were consensus No. 1 and there they have remained.
Considering it’s been a week-to-week lease, Swinney said the view from the penthouse hasn’t been any different.
“There’s a whole lot more to life than a football game. It’s the relationships, the brotherhood, the struggle, the grind, the journey that you went on,” he said. “That’s why I try to make sure that these guys are enjoying and are mindful of it. A moment fades pretty quickly, but what you’re going to remember most is that journey.”
First in ACC total offense (502.5 yards per game) and second in total defense (288.5 ypg), Clemson placed 17 players on the 2015 all-league teams, including six on the first-team. The bandwagon has grown and the spotlight has become more intense.
Through it all, Swinney finds occasions to keep things light. Videos of his postgame celebration dances have been featured on national TV. He credited the team’s leadership for keeping their teammates focused on his one-game, one-season mantra.
“Every week we come in and we start over,” he said. “The season always starts tomorrow, and that’s the mentality that we’ve kept all year.”
Tigers vs. Tar Heels
What: ACC Championship
Who: North Carolina vs. Clemson
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte