Nonstop construction noise served as a backdrop to the ambience Tuesday at Death Valley as crews hustled to complete upgrades to the stadium’s infrastructure and dust off the welcome mats at the new multimillion dollar entrance to the West End Zone.
In many respects, the changes are similar to Clemson football’s place in the college football universe, 12th ranked nationally entering Dabo Swinney’s seventh full season as football coach.
Swinney welcomed the scrutiny.
“There were a lot of walls around this program and we’ve been knocking them down one at a time,” he said Tuesday during the first of his weekly media briefings. “Are we elite? We haven’t proven that yet. We’re one of those teams that (has) a chance, and I’ve felt that way for the last few years.
“We’re a team coming into the season that’s got a shot, and that’s really all you can ask for.”
Wofford serves as the appetizer on this season’s buffet, and the Terriers usually don’t go down easily. Four years ago, Clemson fans booed when they led at halftime and grumbled when Wofford trailed by a point entering the fourth quarter.
“Openers, to me, are always the toughest game to get ready for,” Swinney said. “There (are) always adjustments that have to be made, new personnel every year.
“It’s especially tough when you’re playing a veteran team like Wofford.”
Returning eight starters on defense and 10 on offense, Wofford’s signature is an option scheme perfected under coach Mike Ayers over 27 seasons. Swinney cautions his players and the fans to not be quick to judgment.
“You don’t think a game is big? Lose it, and you’ll find out real quick how big that game is,” he said. “When you’re at a place like Clemson and the expectations are always high and you have a mentality in your program that expects to win, there is no next game.”
Wofford last beat Clemson in 1933, and the score was tied after the first quarter of the 1981 opener. Clemson won that game and the next 11 for a national championship.
Though Swinney concedes the national pundits probably cannot appreciate Wofford, winning the opening game is the first of his five principle goals each season.
“Our goals are set up to allow us to compete to be the best in the country,” he said. “It doesn’t have an opponent’s name … just win the opener.
“We want to create good momentum for our season, and we’ve done that more times than not. We’ve accomplished every goal that we have. We’ve just never done all of them in the same year.
“When we do, it’s going to be magical.”
With so many new faces on the offensive and defensive lines and new kickers and punters, the challenges are apparent. Swinney doesn’t seem to matter. Having sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson helps ease the anxiety.
“Everybody wants to have a program that people look at and say, they have a chance. I think we’ve made great progress there,” he said.
Reminding that only two other teams have won at least 10 games each of the last four seasons, Swinney said the national perception has changed.
“I think we are closer than we’ve ever been to being the program that I want us to be, especially from where we started six years ago,” he said. “At the end of the day, what do you get out of the team that we have?
“We have a great foundation in place, we have good tradition here but we still have a lot of work to do. My goal is by 2020 to look back and say we just had the best decade in Clemson football history.”
NOTES: Though backup quarterback Nick Schuessler solidified his spot in camp, freshman Kelly Bryant continued to push forward with classmate Tucker Israel sidelined by a broken foot, and could see the field quickly. “He’s going to play,” Swinney said. … LB Chris Register (stinger) and TE Stanton Seckinger (knee) will receive additional rest this week. … Some tickets remain, including $10 admission for school-aged kids.
Tigers vs. Terriers
Who: Clemson (0-0) vs. Wofford (0-0)
When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
TV: WACH FOX