CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is ready to watch his team hit the field, no matter how many questions he might have approaching the opener against FCS opponent Wofford.
Swinney expects his team to be engaged and focused despite not facing a Power 5 opponent to kick things off for the first time in four years. The Tigers played Auburn at the start of 2012, then Georgia each of the past two seasons.
The coach understands those who believe his team, favorites to win the Atlantic Coast Conference, will throttle the Terriers of the Southern Conference. But he remembers too well the 2011 matchup in which Wofford held the lead midway through the third quarter at Death Valley before losing 35-27.
Clemson has a perfect, 29-0 mark against FCS teams since 1982. Still, Swinney does not want his players taking things for granted.
“Nothing up there says win the opener by four touchdowns,” said Swinney, citing the Tigers posted goals each season. “It says ‘Win the opener.’”
The focus has been strong this camp, tight Jordan Leggett said.
“We always the first game pretty seriously,” said Leggett, a junior. “Even though, it’s like Wofford, they’re still a great team and we’re still going to have difficulties out there.”
If that’s the case, count on more difficulties ahead for the Tigers, who feature a leading Heisman Trophy contender in Deshaun Watson and a potent offense looking to supplant Florida State as ACC champion.
“Are we elite?” Swinney said. “We haven’t proved that yet. We’re a team that’s got a shot and that’s all you can ask.”
Swinney said there was not much he and the coaches at to say the past few seasons to get players ready for the opener against strong Southeastern Conference opponents. The Tigers defeated Auburn 26-19 in the Georgia Dome three years ago before splitting the series with Georgia — Clemson winning at home in 2013 before the Bulldogs and Todd Gurley ran past the Tigers last year.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, starting his fourth season in charge of the Tigers defense, heard about last Wofford meeting soon after arriving on campus.
He had one question: “Why do we play them if we don’t even have to?” he recalled Tuesday.
The Terriers run an option-based attack Clemson typically sees just once a year in the regular season against Georgia Tech. A problem for the Tigers is they are breaking in several new starters along the defensive line and linebackers after six of them from last year’s No. 1 ranked college defense finished their careers. Defensive end Vic Beasley and linebacker Stephone Anthony were each selected in the first round of last spring’s NFL draft.
Venables knows his new guys will want to make a very big impression as quickly as they can — something which feeds into the hands of Wofford’s relentless offense.
“We’re going to challenge our guys not to do too much,” Venables said.
Swinney said he won’t slow down the offense with Watson, who suffered injuries to his shoulder in the spring of 2014, then to his hand and knee during the season last fall. Watson comes off ACL surgery on his left knee and is anxious to show people he can stay on the field.
Watson’s rehabilitation went off without problems and the 6-foot-2 sophomore has had no problems in camp.
“I feel really good and I am excited about Saturday,” Watson said.
The Tigers are only one of three teams in the country who have won 10 or more games the past four seasons. Swinney believes they can take another step forward this fall.
“I definitely think we’re closer than we’ve ever been to the program I want us to be,” he said.